By Matt Popchock

Dan Thayer seemed stoical for a coach whose team ended the week with section victories over two ranked opponents, including a signature win over one of the best teams in the state.

“I just didn’t think we played that well,” Thayer said.  “We had a little bit of a hangover from beating Mt. Lebanon Monday, so we didn’t practice that well the last couple days.  It’s just that letdown that happens.”

Maybe knowing that his team will head into a non-section game at Oakland Catholic Saturday atop one of the toughest sections in the WPIAL will make him feel a little better.

Baldwin (4-0, 9-1), the Post-Gazette’s top-ranked Quad-A team, relied upon an efficient start by its usually hot-shooting guards to fluster Canon-McMillan (0-1, 5-4), the No. 9 squad per MSA Sports, in a comfortable 56-47 win in a Class AAAA Section 4 showdown at Baldwin High School Thursday night.

Neither team shot particularly well down the stretch, but senior swingman/Duquesne recruit Belma Nurkic and junior Taylor Wentzel, who had helped the Highlanders earn their biggest and most emotional win of the season 72 hours earlier, refused to let their teammates suffer any letdown.  Wentzel’s eight assists paved the way for Nurkic, who led Baldwin with 19 points and 10 rebounds, though the former also got into the act, chipping in 14 points.

Both smiled slightly easier than their coach afterward, though both, like Thayer, kept this contest in perspective.

“We didn’t practice this week as hard as we could have or should have,” Nurkic said in agreement, “so we came out a little sloppy.  We’re just trying to put it behind us and get ready for the next one as well as we did Mount Lebanon.”

Nevertheless, Baldwin suffocated Canon-McMillan’s offense throughout the first half and did a commendable job containing senior Emily Hansen.  The talented forward tried her best to put the Lady Macs on her back late in the game, finishing with 18 points, including three three-pointers and seven fourth-quarter free throws, and six rebounds, but it wasn’t enough to prolong their four-game win streak.  The Highlanders, meanwhile, will travel to Oakland Saturday having won eight straight.

With Hansen held in check, their offense took advantage and generated plenty of good looks at the basket early on.  Baldwin wasted few of them, as Wentzel and Nurkic repeatedly attacked the baseline and combined for 16 points, propelling the Highlanders to a 20-9 lead after the first quarter and putting Canon-Mac in a hole from which it could never climb out.

“We used our speed a little bit to try and get easy looks,” Thayer said of his team’s explosive start.  “We applied some pressure and, more than anything else, that helped us get more chances, more possessions.  [Canon-McMillan] did a good job adjusting, but we also got away from that.”

“Just pushing the ball,” Nurkic and Wentzel said in unison, laughing and echoing Thayer’s words.

Although the Highlanders were barely outscored over the remaining three periods combined, they played well enough the rest of the night to maintain a comfortable advantage, going up 34-18 at halftime, and their defense, which had allowed just 43 points per game coming in, continued forcing costly turnovers.

Defensive rebounding allowed the Lady Macs, who won the battle of the boards 14-11 in the first half and 30-23 on the night, to keep things from spiraling completely out of control, and junior forward Shawn Mosley provided a spark off the bench to start the second half, contributing five points and five boards in a third quarter that saw Canon-McMillan outscore Baldwin 12-7.

That would be their biggest bright spot, as Wentzel continued moving the ball well and Nurkic remained strong off the defensive glass, scoring nine points over the final two quarters to ice it, thus Canon-Mac and Moon remain the only two in AAAA-Sec. 4 without a section win.  The Lady Macs hope that changes in their favor Monday night when they host the last-place Tigers.

For continuing coverage of WPIAL basketball, be sure to check back with Mr. High School Sports throughout the 2010-11 season!

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