STERLING – The collective sigh of relief from the Newman bench was almost audible in the nearly silent gym.
For more than 12 minutes at the start of the Comets' Three Rivers North contest against the Prophetstown Prophets on Friday night, there seemed to be a lid on the basket for the home team. Finally, after Newman missed its first dozen or so shots, Julie Hurd broke the invisible barrier with the second of two free throws with 3:57 left before halftime.
"We played a lot better after that," Hurd said. "Once we got one shot to go in, then we hit the next one, and we started shooting with confidence again."
But the deficit, which had grown to 24 before the Comets' first point, was too much for Newman to overcome in the Prophets' 50-36 victory.
In this case, the 24-0 run over the game's first quarter and a half wasn't due to the normally unyielding full-court press with which Prophetstown usually suffocates its opponents. Instead, the Prophets instituted an aggressive half-court man-to-man defense, forcing the Comets into tough shots, and then limiting any offensive rebound opportunities.
Newman finished the first quarter 0-for-9 from the field, with eight turnovers.
"I didn't think we'd be able to do that to them, even playing that good of defense," Prophetstown guard Corrie Reiley said. "It really surprised me that they didn't score for so long, but we just made sure they had to take tough shots, then got the rebounds and got back down the court."
Though very few of Newman's 15 turnovers led to fast-break layups, the Prophets (20-2, 8-0) still took advantage on the offensive end.
Ball movement was the key, as Prophetstown notched assists on 15 of its 18 field goals; the other three, all in the first quarter, consisted of two walk-up 3-pointers by Reiley, and Kassi Henrekin's pull-up jumper in the lane.
All 10 Prophets scored at least two points and pulled down at least one rebound, and eight of them dished an assist.
"We talk all the time about getting in the flow of the offense, and taking 'team' shots," Prophetstown coach Don Robinson said. "If they're open, we want them to shoot, and I think the girls get a lot of confidence on offense thanks to their strong defense and rebounding."
Leading 32-10 at halftime, the Prophets put things away in the third quarter. They held the Comets (5-13, 4-5) to 2-for-14 shooting in the period, and scored 12 of the final 14 points in the frame after Newman's Aubree Schmitt's opening bucket a minute in to take a 44-14 lead.
But it was a whole different ballgame over the final 8 minutes. With Robinson playing his five reserves for almost the entire fourth quarter, the Comets made some hay and built some confidence for the future.
The shots that refused to fall earlier in the game started going down, and Newman ratcheted up the pressure in its half-court defense. The Comets forced 12 of the Prophets' 22 turnovers in the final period, and outscored them 22-6.
"We all stayed positive, figured out how to play better defense, and started getting shots to fall," Hurd said. "I think if we had played like that the whole game, we could've really stuck with them … and that's going to help our confidence for next game."
Hurd scored 10 of her team-high 11 points in the fourth quarter, and she also nabbed four steals. Schmitt finished with six points, four assists and four steals, while Kayci Howell knocked down a pair of fourth-period 3s and finished with eight points and six rebounds.
"I was impressed and proud of the girls in that second half," Newman coach Jay Howell said. "They played for each other, they didn't give up, and they stuck with it despite shots not falling and Prophetstown playing very well earlier in the game."
Reiley finished with 11 points, four steals, three assists and three rebounds for Prophetstown, while Henrekin and Clare Kramer each scored nine points; Kramer grabbed five rebounds and dished two assists. Heather Strike had four assists and four steals, and Karlie Stafford chipped in nine rebounds and two assists as the Prophets became the first area team this season – boys or girls – to reach the 20-win plateau.
"Coach Robinson told us before the game that we were one win away from 20," Reiley said, "and that really got us pumped up. It was really nice to come out and get that early lead, because it took a lot of pressure off us and helped us relax and run our offense and defense."
Prophetstown 50, Newman 36
Star of the game: Corrie Reiley, Prophetstown, 11 points, 4 steals, 3 rebounds, 3 assists
Key performers: Clare Kramer, Prophetstown, 9 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists; Julie Hurd, Newman, 11 points, 4 steals; Aubree Schmitt, Newman, 6 points, 4 assists, 4 steals
Up next: Prophetstown at Riverdale, 7:30 p.m. Monday; Fulton at Newman, 7:30 p.m. Thursday