BERKELEY HEIGHTS – Sometimes in sports we get an event worthy of the hype.
Cranford vs. Governor Livingston for the fourth time this year was simply the heart of a champion trying valiantly to come back against the heart of a team that became a champion again.
This game was everything a packed house at GL, including some 700 fans, could have expected – and more.
In order to have a chance at beating at red-hot Governor Livingston team Cranford had to find a way to prevent senior guard Alyssa Cranston from getting the ball to fellow senior frontcourt players Erin Ferguson and Mallory George.
That combination – along with the 3-point shooting of junior Patrice DiTomasso off the bench – sparked a season-high 13-game Highlander winning streak going in.
“We had to play in-your-face defense,” Cranford senior Jess McCoy said.
“I had to guard Erin and front her as best as I could,” said Cranford senior Kaitlin McGovern.
In addition to halting a GL offense that was working brilliantly for so long, including passing the ball with precision to find the open player – often Ferguson or George – for inside baskets, Cranford also picked the most opportune time to shoot the ball – perhaps – as well as it ever has this season.
Sixth-seeded Cranford made its first four shots and took the lead for good after the game’s only tie at 2-2 en route to posting a convincing 56-51 triumph over top-seeded GL in Monday night’s North 2, Group 3 championship game at GL’s blue gymnasium.
As a result, the Cougars will face North 1, Group 3 champion Jefferson in Wednesday’s 7 p.m. Group 3 semifinal at Ramapo, weather permitting since there is snow in the forecast. The winner moves on to Sunday’s Group 3 state championship game at Toms River North.
Cranford, which improved to 20-8 with its fourth straight win, captured N2, G3 for the second time in four seasons. Three years ago the Cougars lost to Pascack Valley in the Group 3 semifinals after beating Somerville at home in the N2, G3 final.
GL, which was seeking its third sectional championship and first since winning North 2, Group 2 for the second time in 1985, finished another brilliant campaign at 23-5. Three of the losses were to Cranford.
McGovern, who might have played her best game of the season, led all scorers with 18 points, including 10 in the first half and eight in the second. She made a big basket in the lane while getting fouled in the fourth quarter to help stave off a GL comeback.
Cranford, which never trailed, had its biggest lead of 13 points at 39-26 with three minutes to go in the third quarter.
With Cranford’s three seniors – Jenna Goeller, McCoy and McGovern – all having fouled out, GL was within 54-49 with 14.1 seconds to go.
Coming in and helping Cranford hang on were junior Megan Pringle and freshman Sara Ross.
Following two missed Highlander free throws, GL then got as close as 54-51 when Ferguson grabbed the rebound after the second miss and put the ball in.
With 6.8 seconds to go, Ferguson fouled Cranford junior Carly Maucione, who proceeded to make two huge free throws for a 56-51 score. Maucione, a key first-year starter, finished with 11 points, including six really big points from the free throw line under intense pressure.
Cranston took the game’s final shot, missing a 3-pointer.
The Cranford celebration then commenced.
“This is incredible,” McCoy said. “States is our time of the year and we really wanted this badly.”
Cranford played in its fourth sectional final in five seasons and its third in N2, G3 in the past four. The Cougars are now 16-5 in state tournament games since 2009, with seven of the wins coming on the road.
GL got one game closer this season to winning its first sectional title in 28 years.
“It was great to win the county championship back-to-back, but we would have liked to have won this one too,” Cranston said.
Unlike when Cranford made only five of its 25 shots from the floor in the first half against Chatham, but survived, the Cougars made eight of their first 13 vs. GL to take their biggest lead of the first half at 21-13 with 6:42 left before intermission.
“We were trying to figure out what we were doing wrong defensively,” GL head coach Andy Silvagni said. “Cranford was shooting the lights out.
“When that happens you tip your cap to your opponent.”
GL went on a 6-0 run to get right back in the game at 21-19, which along with also pulling to within 23-21 was the closest the Highlanders got to trying to take a lead. Ferguson scored inside, George made a layup and then Sara Dilly produced her third straight basket, hitting another jumper.
After Ferguson scored inside off an assist from George to make it 23-21, Cranford came right back to close the first half on a 5-0 run. McGovern hit a jumper and then McCoy connected on her second and final 3-pointer, putting the Cougars up 28-21 at halftime.
“I thought the end of the first half was the difference,” Silvagni said. “After everything we did to get right back in the game we lost focus.”
When the teams last played on Feb. 18 at Rahway in a Union County Tournament semifinal, GL won 36-27 and never trailed.
This time Cranford never fell behind.
Union County basketball proved just how good it can be with both Cranford and GL reaching this sectional final.
“We worked so hard for this, it’s just amazing,” said McGovern as she and McCoy both fought back tears of joy immediately after the final whistle.
As freshmen in the program, with McCoy a starter; Goeller, McGovern and McCoy helped Cranford win a sectional title. Now they did it as seniors.
Once again the Cougars are 32 minutes away from playing for a state championship.
Cranford’s motto right now is that “we don’t want our season to end.”
It hasn’t yet.
NORTH 2, GROUP 3 FINAL AT GL
6-CRANFORD (20-8) 18 10 16 12 -56
1-GOV. LIVINGSTON (23-5) 13 8 11 19 – 51
6-CRANFORD COUGARS (56):
11-S. Ross, 0-0-0-0
1-GL HIGHLANDERS (51):