Before the 2019-20 basketball season even began, Will Cushing knew it might be an uphill fight to secure a playoff bid.
His Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy girls basketball team was a little lacking in veteran leadership with just three seniors on his roster. So surely there would be challenges along the way.
So when RKA arrived at IN-Tech Academy last week to battle the Panthers, it did so with a 4-5 record. And with nine wins needed to secure a spot in the postseason, it was time for the Lady Tigers to begin stringing together some victories.
Cushing dubbed this game a “must-win,” and RKA responded in kind as Melanie Santana poured in 23 points, Saray Javier added 10 points and seven assists, Faith Mulosmanaj logged eight points and eight boards, and Laura Lozano chipped in six points and seven assists as the Lady Tigers rallied from an early 10-point hole to post a 47-34 victory.
“This was a big game,” Cushing said. “It was kind of a must-win game for us in terms of the landscape of the division. And this is always an interesting gym to play in because it’s kind of a neighborhood rivalry. All the kids know each other, they all come from the same neighborhood, and a lot of them are friends. So I think there is an added energy when we play at IN-Tech.”
After RKA was limited to just five points in the first quarter, the Lady Tigers clawed their way back into the game thanks largely to Santana. The senior scored 14 points in the first half, helping pull the Lady Tigers within a point of IN-Tech at 22-21 by halftime.
Then the game completely changed in RKA’s favor. The Lady Tigers’ defense went into full lockdown mode holding the Panthers to just three points in the third quarter and just 12 in the second half. That built a 35-25 lead at the end of the third before RKA cruised to the win.
“We pretty much stayed in the same defense we were running, but I think the girls picked up the defensive intensity a little bit,” Cushing said. “I felt going into halftime we had a little bit of momentum, and then we built on it. Then we got out in transition and we played better defense, and we were able to build a pretty good lead.”
Cushing credited Santana’s hot shooting in the first half with keeping the Lady Tigers in striking distance of IN-Tech until they worked out their early offensive struggles.
“Melanie is a great shooter,” Cushing said. “She hit two or three threes from the deep corner (in the first half), and she can do that. She’s a shooter who can be a little streaky at times, but when she’s on, she’s as good as there is. She hit a couple of those big shots when other things weren’t clicking for us, and she kept us in the game.”
The magic number to earn a playoff spot for the Lady Tigers is nine. And while the victory over IN-Tech evened RKA’s record at 5-5, a subsequent loss to Gompers last Friday dropped them to 5-6. Cushing has since checked over his remaining schedule and notes it comes equipped with a number of games he believes should go RKA’s way.
“We’re still in playoff contention,” the coach said. “I kind of looked at the landscape of the division, and there are definitely a few games that look winnable. There are a couple of teams at the top of the division that I’ve been impressed by like American Studies and Tuitt. They’re both tough teams. But there are four teams we still have to play on our schedule that we beat in the first half of the season.
“So my message to the girls is, ‘You’ve got to stay focused.’ If we do that I’m feeling pretty confident we’ll get the playoff spot.”
With seven games to play, and needing to go 4-3 to reach the postseason, Cushing is optimistic postseason play is coming for a team that seemed to be a playoff long shot at the start of the season.
“I think we’re where I hoped we’d be, and I’m happy where we are,” Cushing said. “Now the goal is to get to nine wins. I’d be thrilled for the girls if we got there. The playoffs are now our goal, and I think if we can get there I’d be satisfied with our season. It would be great.”