When holding a basketball, avoid making eye contact with Jenna Annecchiarico.
On defense, the sophomore guard looks deep into the eyes of her opponent as a form of intimidation.
“I want them scared,” she said.
She also wants the ball. And often, in the blink of an eye, she gets it.
That was the case Saturday night as Annecchiarico’s defense helped generate offense in top-seeded Baldwin’s 61-37 win over No. 5 Syosset in the Nassau Class AA semifinals at LIU Post.
All eyes were on Annecchiarico as she scored a season-high 23 points and had six steals, many of which led to easy baskets.
“She plays as hard on defense as she does on offense,” Baldwin coach Tom Catapano said. “She just refuses to lose. It feels pretty good to have a kid like that in our program.”
That program now is one victory away from winning its third straight county title and sixth in seven years.
The Bruins’ success has stemmed from intense pressure defense that makes no pass or dribble seem safe. Passing lanes close quickly, help defenders come swiftly, turnovers pile up rapidly.
Annecchiarico scored eight points in the first quarter as Baldwin built a 13-4 advantage. After intercepting an inbounds pass, she went coast-to-coast for the layup to increase the lead to 25-8 in the second. On the next possession, she stripped the ball and sent a lead pass downcourt to Aziah Hudson for a layup that increased the lead to 19.
Hudson, very similar to Annecchiarico with her quick hands and ability to finish in transition, scored 22 points. That the two have similar playing styles is no coincidence.
“That’s my best friend since kindergarten,” said Hudson, a sophomore guard. “In practice, it’s very competitive when we guard each other because we are basically the same player.”
When Syosset pulled within 35-23 with 2:19 left in the third quarter after a running hook shot by Kendall Halpern, Hudson responded. She cut through traffic for a layup in transition and, on the following possession, pushed the ball upcourt and hit a runner plus the foul. That helped send Baldwin into the fourth quarter with a 42-26 lead that grew to as many as 27 points.
Sarah Garner and Rachel Mahler each had 10 points for Syosset (15-7). Lames El Gammal had five points, nine rebounds and three blocks for Baldwin, which will play No. 2 Massapequa in the Nassau Class AA final.
“We just played hard and played our game,” Annecchiarico said. “Defense leads to offense and we always find a way to get to the ball.”
As if they have eyes in the back of their heads.