CLARK – Survive and advance?
For The Patrick School, which is the top seed and defending champion, that’s exactly how the Celtics moved on to their third county championship game in four seasons.
It took a free throw by freshman guard Lashae Dwyer with five seconds remaining and then TPS had to hold its breath while Cranford senior Camryn Wichelns’ final 3-point attempt from half court fell just short.
The Celtics survived, edging fifth-seeded Cranford 45-44 in one of the best girls’ basketball Union County Tournament contests in some time.
They also advanced to the UCT final for the second straight season and for the third time in the past four.
TPS, now 20-5, will seek to repeat as UCT champions for the first time when it faces second-seeded Roselle Catholic (20-4) in Saturday’s 5 p.m. final. The 43rd annual girls’ basketball UCT will conclude at Kean University’s Harwood Arena in Union.
Roselle Catholic advanced after ousting third-seeded Westfield 56-42 in Wednesday night’s first semifinal at Johnson High School’s Louis J. Peragallo Gymnasium.
TPS and Roselle Catholic split against each other in Union County Conference-Watchung Division play. RC won the first game 59-52 at RC on Jan. 5 and then TPS came back in the fourth quarter to beat visiting RC 54-49 on Jan. 25.
TPS won the Watchung Division title outright at 9-1, while Roselle Catholic finished second at 8-2.
“We’re going to have to play hard and continue to give everything we’ve got,” said Dwyer of her team’s strategy this Saturday vs. RC. Dwyer paced the Celtics with a 16-point effort vs. Cranford, netting eight points in each half.
“We have to stay focused and play as a team. We put all of our sweat into our practices.”
Second-year head coach Damel Ling immediately summed up his thoughts in one word: “defend.”
“We settled in a bit better the second time we played RC,” Ling said.
TPS outcored RC 18-8 in the fourth quarter of its victory over the Lions.
“We did a better job of guarding (junior forward Taniya) Hanner,” Ling said. “For a young team we’ve shown a lot of resiliency all year.”
Behind the hot hand provided by Wichelns, a four-year starter and 1,000-point scorer for the Cougars, Cranford jumped out to an 11-2 lead. Wichelns made her first two of a game-high seven 3-pointers in that surge.
At one time Wichelns was seven-for-nine from 3-point range and finished seven-for-14.
TPS pulled to within 14-13 at the end of the first quarter, closing the first eight minutes on a 6-0 run.
Cranford came back to go up by nine at 27-18 on a jumper hit by Caroline Kelly. Dwyer banked in a shot to make the score 27-20 at intermission.
After baskets were traded to open the second half, Wichelns connected on two more 3s, first from the right side and then from the left, to give the Cougars their biggest lead of 13 at 35-22 with just over six minutes to go in the third.
This is where game turned. Slowly but surely – scoring both inside and outside – TPS chipped away at Cranford’s lead and ultimately closed the third quarter on a 14-0 run to take its second lead at 36-35 going into the fourth.
The only other Celtic lead before that was 2-0.
A layup by Dwyer right before the third quarter buzzer put TPS back in front.
“Our energy was down in the first half,” Dwyer said. “We never doubted ourselves when we were behind. We just had to fight through it.”
“We forced some shots early on tonight,” Ling said. “Cranford did a good job of forcing us to do so.
“When we got behind our focus was just the next play. We showed toughness to fight through. These are all learning lessons.”
Junior guard Quanaijah McDowell also produced a solid game for the Celtics, finishing with 13 points.
Wichelns led all scorers with a fine, 25-point performance.
After missing a free throw shortly before, she calmly sank three straight after stealing the ball away and getting fouled in 3-point territory.
Three of the four free throws she made in the game tied it at 44-44 – only the game’s second deadlock – with 7.1 seconds to go.
“I heard the crowd and just looked at my dad,” said Wichelns, who will continue playing basketball on the Division 3 level at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va.
Although the Cougars did not reach the final for the second time in three years – Wichelns helped lead Cranford to the 2016 title – there was plenty for Cranford to be proud of.
“We played so hard, this was definitely one of our best games this year,” Wichelns said. “We beat them for three quarters. We played so hard and worked so hard and hustled.”
Cranford head coach Jackie Dyer echoed those sentiments.
“The Patrick School is really good, they are quick and aggressive and Dwyer is really good,” Dyer said. “In the third quarter our outside shots just stopped falling.
“We’ve improved so much this year and have worked so hard. By far this was one of our best games.”
TEAM EFFORT LIFTS LIONS PAST BLUE DEVILS
It was a team effort that lifted Roselle Catholic past Westfield in the first semifinal.
Senior quard Tyara McQueen scored 11 of her game-high 15 points in the first half, while Nina Worthey came off the bench strong to contribute eight important points. Worthey made her first three field goal attempts.
Although RC led the entire game, Westfield did pull to within 43-40 early in the fourth quarter after consecutive baskets were made by Faith Dobosiewicz – the second on a steal and layup.
RC responded by closing the game on a 13-2 run, with scoring provided by Jenissa Encarnacion, Hanner, Worthey, McQueen and senior guard Victoria Jacobs, who had a solid game and finished with 13 points.
Encarnacion, a junior guard, contributed 11 points.
The only Westfield player to finish with double-digit scoring was junior Samantha Stravach with 10 points.
FIRST UCT GIRLS’ BASKETBALL SEMIFINAL AT JOHNSON
3-Westfield (18-7) 07 14 15 06 – 42
2-Roselle Catholic (20-4) 12 16 13 15 – 56
3-WESTFIELD BLUE DEVILS (42):
22-Molly Ryan, senior, 3-0-1-7
23-Faith Dobosiewicz, sophomore, 4-0-0-8
3-Caroline Dwyer, sophomore, 0-1-0-3
12-Grace Elliott, senior, 1-1-1-6
32-Lauren Sgro, senior, 2-0-2-6
2-Samantha Stravach, junior, 4-0-2-10
10-Lily Maz, junior, 1-0-0-2
Starters: Ryan, Elliott,
Sgro, Stravach, Maz.
2-ROSELLE CATHOLIC LIONS (56):
4-Jenissa Encarnacion, junior, 2-1-4-11
1-Victoria Jacobs, senior, 1-3-2-13
3-Tyara McQueen, senior, 2-3-2-15
20-Nina Worthey, sophomore, 4-0-0-8
25-Taniya Hanner, junior, 3-0-1-7
23-Kayla Haywood, sophomore, 0-0-2-2
Starters: Encarnacion, Jacobs,
McQueen, Hanner, Haywood.
SECOND UCT GIRLS’ BASKETBALL SEMIFINAL AT JOHNSON
5-Cranford (13-12) 14 13 08 09 – 44
1-The Patrick School (20-5) 13 07 16 09 – 45
5-CRANFORD COUGARS (44):
32-Camryn Wichelns, senior, 0-7-4-25
22-Charlotte VanWhy, senior, 2-0-3-7
55-KC Pringle, junior, 0-0-1-1
33-Caroline McCaffery, senior, 1-0-0-2
13-Caroline Kelly, senior, 2-0-0-4
11-Meghan Santarelli, junior, 1-0-0-2
20-Lauren Santarelli, senior, 0-1-0-3
Starters: Wichelns, VanWhy,
Pringle, McCaffery, L. Santarelli.
1-THE PATRICK SCHOOL (45):
2-Lashae Dwyer, freshman, 6-0-4-16
5-Quanaijah McDowell, junior, 4-1-2-13
24-Brennah Cody, junior, 4-0-0-8
35-Faith Reddick, sophomore, 1-0-0-2
0-Madison Ruddy, sophomore, 1-1-0-5
1-Shadajah Thomas, senior, 0-0-1-1
3-Aliyah Williams, junior, 0-0-0-0
Starters: Dwyer, Cody,
Ruddy, Thomas, Williams.