A couple of days ago, Coach Steve Freeman took Nina Howe aside and told her she had to take control of the York High girls’ basketball team.

Howe, a sophomore guard and the lone returning starter, obviously listened.

Howe scored 23 points Monday night to lead the fourth-ranked Wildcats to a 44-31 victory over fifth-seeded Kennebunk in the Class A South quarterfinals at the Portland Expo.

It was an exceptional defensive effort by the Wildcats, who held Kennebunk scoreless for a span of 16 minutes, 28 seconds to take control of a tight game.

“She was impressive,” Freeman said of Howe. “I told her she was the one we wanted (with) the ball in her hands. She came out and it was obvious she was going to take charge.”

York (11-8) will play top-ranked Brunswick in the semifinals at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Cross Insurance Arena.

Howe also had a big hand in York’s defensive effort. Several of her baskets came directly off steals that resulted in layups.

York held an 11-7 lead with 2:01 remaining in the first quarter following the second of back-to-back baskets by Emily Archibald of Kennebunk (10-9) when the Wildcats shut down the Rams.

Kennebunk didn’t score again until 1:42 remained in the third period, when Archibald converted a coast-to-coast layup following a defensive blocked shot. That ended a 19-0 run by the Wildcats.

Leading 24-7 at the half, York got a 3-pointer from Lauren Leroux (10 points) to start the third period, a driving basket by Howe and then a foul shot from Jackie Tabara to make it 30-7.

Asked if that was the longest scoring drought his team had ever been through, Kennebunk Coach Rob Sullivan said he couldn’t remember any others like that.

“It was unbelievable,” he said. “I think there were times during the stretch where we were making mistakes, we were making mental mistakes. There were also times we did some good things.”

But nothing fell for the Rams, who committed 13 turnovers and went 0-of-12 shooting in the drought, missing at least two breakaway layups.

“They executed our defensive game plan better tonight than any game we played all year,” said Freeman. “Pressure the ball, double the ball when it got in Archibald’s hands and helpside D.”

Howe said the Wildcats worked on their defense all week:

“We talked, we helped helpside, which we’ve been practicing all week,” she said. “We did a good job. We moved our feet. Just played total defense.

“We’ve been focusing on defense for so long now and I think putting that into action now, it definitely had a big impact on the game.”

Kennebunk cut into the lead once it broke the drought.

“They kept fighting and they kept playing,” said Sullivan.

With Archibald, a freshman guard/forward who scored 16 points, scoring inside and Samantha Creech, a junior guard who scored 10 points, hitting from the outside, Kennebunk cut the deficit to 10 twice in the final 3:30.

But the Wildcats hit 5-of-7 free throws in the final minute to advance.