BERKELEY HEIGHTS – Cranford standout senior Jess McCoy didn’t make her first field goal until there was just 3:50 to go in the third quarter. Her seventh shot from the floor gave the visiting Cougars their fourth lead.
Cranford, as a team, missed its first nine shots of the fourth quarter. However, after player-of-the-game Mallory George of host Governor Livingston gave the Highlanders their third and final lead by hitting a shot in the lane, McCoy was there again for the Cougars, coming through in the clutch.
Despite not filling up the hoop as much as she normally does earlier in the game, McCoy hit a jumper from the left side with just over a minute left – which were the only points Cranford scored in the fourth quarter, giving the Cougars their seventh lead and the advantage for good – and then came up with a steal shortly afterwards.
Cranford then held on in the final minute, surviving an almost-steal at halfcourt by GL sophomore Sara Dilly with less than 20 seconds left, to post a thrilling, come-from-behind 37-36 Union County Conference-Watchung Division triumph over the Highlanders.
Friday afternoon’s season-opening game between last year’s top two teams in Union County took place at GL’s Red Gym. It was also the first Watchung Division game for both teams, each moving up after GL won the Mountain Division last year en route to a school-best 26-2 finish and Cranford finished second.
McCoy, in not one of her strongest games, still managed to finish with 13 points, eight rebounds and four steals. Although she did not make a field goal in the first half, including missing a lefty layup after a steal, she got Cranford through a tough division opponent by producing as her team’s go-to player.
“We’re always a second half team,” said McCoy, who scored 10 of her 13 points in the second half.
“Jess really got into a rhythm in the second half,” Cranford sixth-year head coach Jackie Dyer said.
Cranford overcame a 14-8 deficit after the first quarter to get the game to a score of 20-20 at intermission. The Cougars then outscored GL 15-11 in the third quarter, taking a lead by as much as six points at 32-26 when McCoy and junior Kerry Wischusen connected on back-to-back 3-pointers.
“We didn’t start out so well, but we stayed calm and kept our composure,” said McCoy, who gave a verbal commitment to play at Division 3 Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, where she will study biology. “In the second half I was more relaxed.”
George, a returning starter like McCoy, scored in every quarter for the Highlanders. In addition to her game-high 20 points, she also grabbed nine rebounds, three of them on offense.
In the first half, she was fouled three times going to the basket and made all five of her free throw attempts. She was a force inside for the Highlanders and had to pick up the slack with fellow senior starters Erin Ferguson and Alyssa Cranston out with injuries.
“That’s what we expect from Mallory,” GL sixth-year head coach Andy Silvagni said. “She’s a tough kid, who has played four years and we expect that from her every night.”
Cranford was minus returning starter Mairead McKeary, the junior also out with an injury.
Pacing Cranford in scoring was returning senior point guard Jenna Goeller, who netted 14 points, including three 3-pointers. Her only free throw gave Cranford its second lead at 8-7, her third 3-pointer tied the game at 20-20 with 1:50 to go in the second quarter and her only points of the second half – a layup in the third quarter – gave the Cougars their third lead at 24-22.
“When we got the game to 20-20, we knew we had to stop George in the second half because she had 12 points at halftime,” said Goeller, who also had 12 points at intermission for her team.
George’s final two of three baskets in the third quarter produced the game’s fifth and sixth ties, which were the final two times the hotly-contested clash was deadlocked.
“Mallory’s a great player, so we had to pull together as a team and help a bit more on defense,” Goeller said.
Cranford’s other returning senior starter, Kaitlin McGovern, finished with five points and six rebounds. Her final point, on a free throw early in the fourth quarter, tied the game for the fourth time at 22-22.
McGovern was proud to say that she just found out Thursday that she was accepted to Brown and that she will attend the Ivy League school. McGovern said that she also seriously considered Ivy League school Cornell, private Big Ten school Northwestern and also Lehigh.
“I just found out I got in, so I was a little reeling from that,” McGovern said. “They have a really good engineering program and I want to be an engineer. I also like Providence (Rhode Island, where the school is located).”
“I can’t be prouder of her and Jess,” Dyer said. “We have a saying, ‘academics come first.’ They work hard both in the classroom and on the court.”
McGovern was one of Cranford’s unsung players a year ago, her performance on defense a big reason why the Cougars were able to post a final record of 24-5.
Because of the rivalry Cranford has with GL, she knew it was going to be another battle until the end.
“We were kind of nervous because this was our last first game together,” McGovern said, speaking of herself, McCoy and Goeller. “We came out a little shaky, but we picked it up and so did they (GL). It came down to the wire on the first day, but I’m happy because we won.”
Dyer will take the victory, but realized that it was not a performance to brag about. Not many teams escape an opposing gym with a victory after scoring only two points in the fourth quarter.
“I didn’t even realize that we scored just one basket in the fourth quarter,” Dyer said. “I thought it was an all-around sloppy game by both teams.”
When it looked like Cranford might begin to build separation after the consecutive McCoy and Wischusen third-quarter 3-pointers, GL came right back and wouldn’t allow it.
“When you play against teams like Governor Livingston you can’t get comfortable with a six-point lead,” Dyer said. “They’re not going to ever give up.”
GL had the ball with 56.9 seconds left and down only one point. The Highlanders, after four passes, missed one shot, with a scramble on the floor resulting in a jump ball in Cranford’s favor.
Following a timeout, the Cougars then passed the ball around before Dilly almost stole it away. McCoy recovered the loose ball and Cranford then managed a few more passes before McCoy was fouled with two seconds left. After Cranford passed the ball in, McCoy dribbled away the final two seconds.
“I thought our girls played tough and played basketball the way we expected them to play,” Silvagni said. “We’re happy. The ball just didn’t bounce our way. There’s a long season to go and a lot to improve on.”
GL and Cranford split Mountain Division games last year, with Cranford being the first team to beat GL – 49-44 at GL – after the Highlanders got out to a 17-0 start.
GL then defeated Cranford 31-25 in the Union County Tournament championship game at Kean University, which was the first county title for the Highlanders. Cranford won its only UCT crown in 2006.
“That’s one of our goals, to win the county this year,” McCoy said.
“We wanted to keep the game in the high 20s or low 30s, so to be at 35 is right where we wanted to be,” Silvagni said. “The game was right there for us to win. We had a lot of opportunities in the last three minutes, but we didn’t capitalize.
“We’ll learn from it and get better.”
The rivals are scheduled to play at Cranford’s Martin Gymnasium Jan. 17 at 7 p.m.
UNION COUNTY CONFERENCE-WATCHUNG DIVISION
GIRLS’ BASKETBALL AT GOV. LIVINGSTON’S RED GYM
CRANFORD (1-0, 1-0) 8 12 15 2 -37
GOV. LIVINGSTON (0-1, 0-1) 14 6 11 5 – 36
CRANFORD COUGARS (37):
20-Jess McCoy, senior, 2-2-3-13
32-Kerry Wischusen, junior, 1-1-0-5
4-Jenna Goeller, senior, 2-3-1-14
24-Kaitlin McGovern, senior, 1-0-3-5
15-Carly Maucione, junior, 0-0-0-0
11-Sarah Ross, freshman, 0-0-0-0
Starters: McCoy, Wischusen,
Goeller, McGovern, Maucione
GOV. LIVINGSTON HIGHLANDERS (36):
15-Mallory George, senior, 7-0-6-20
23-Patrice DiTommaso, junior, 0-2-0-6
5-Marielle Jankowski, senior, 0-0-2-2
13-Haley Berliner, sophomore, 2-1-1-8
21-Sara Dilly, sophomore, 0-0-0-0
Starters: George, Jankowski,
DiTommaso, Berliner, Dilly