RAHWAY – If championships are won by playing outstanding defense, then the Governor Livingston Highlanders are in good shape.
Defending champion GL returned to the county championship game for the third straight season after suffocating arch rival Cranford in Monday night’s 38th annual Frank J. Cicarell girls’ basketball semifinals at Earl H. Walter Gymnasium.
Third-seeded GL limited second-seeded Cranford, a team that swept GL in Watchung Division play, to just seven field goals – and none by 3-point sharpshooter Jenna Goeller – en route to a commanding 36-27 triumph.
Sunday, Feb. 24
8-Oak Knoll vs. 3-Gov. Livingston, 6 p.m.
Monday, Feb. 18
Gov. Livingston 36, Cranford 27
Oak Knoll 46, Linden 42
GL will face eighth-seeded Oak Knoll in Sunday’s 6 p.m. final at Kean University’s Harwood Arena in Union. Oak Knoll came back in the fourth quarter to oust fifth-seeded Linden 46-42 in the nightcap.
More on Oak Knoll’s victory can be found below.
GL led from start to finish and didn’t allow Cranford to get any closer than four points in the second half.
Once again, the Highlanders were led by the inside play of seniors Erin Ferguson and Mallory George, with senior guard Alyssa Cranston getting both of them the ball.
Ferguson, who was instrumental in staying out of foul trouble, led all scorers with 14 points, with most of them coming inside after receiving a pass from Cranston. George, who had to go to the bench with 5:17 left in the third quarter, still managed 13 points. She pulled up for key jumpers in addition to also finding room to score closer.
GL made it difficult for Cranford to shoot the ball – Goeller was just 0-for-3 from the field, all in the first half – and when the Cougars were able to get off shots, most of them didn’t fall.
Senior Jess McCoy did her best to try to get Cranford back in the game, scoring 10 of her team-high 12 points in the second half.
Two free throws by McCoy pulled Cranford to within 27-23 with five minutes to go in the fourth. However, GL answered quickly with consecutive, big inside baskets by Ferguson and George to build its led back up to eight at 31-23.
GL remained in control from that point on, continuing to make it difficult for Cranford’s offense to get in any kind of rhythm.
GL won its ninth straight to improve to 19-4, with the Highlanders continuing to play their best basketball of the season.
Cranford had a two-game winning streak snapped and slipped to 16-8.
Both teams will be competing in the North 2, Group 3 playoffs, GL the top seed on the top side of the bracket and Cranford the sixth seed on the lower side. The sectional playoffs begin next Monday, Feb. 25.
GL defeated Cranford 31-25 in last year’s UCT final at Kean for its first county championship and a 2-1 record vs. the Cougars a year ago after they split Mountain Division games.
Cranford ended up going 2-1 vs. GL this year, finishing second in the Watchung Division behind 3-peat champion Roselle Catholic. GL finished third in the Watchung Division this year after winning the Mountain Division last year.
In the first half, GL got out to a 4-0 lead and then led 9-2, prompting Cranford to call its first timeout. George, with six points; Cranston, with three and Ferguson, with two, all scored in a first quarter that GL won 11-6.
GL’s best quarter was the second, with the Highlanders coming out on top for a game-best 12-point lead that saw it ahead 20-8 at intermission. Ferguson scored six points – all inside – with four of them off assists from Cranston as GL outscored Cranford 9-2 in the second.
Cranford, which also fell behind by 12 at 22-10 early in the third quarter, rebounded later in the period – sparked by McCoy – and was about to cut the lead in half going into the fourth quarter before Cranston hit a huge, two-handed, 3-point, buzzer-beater from extended long range. That key shot also came after Goeller committed her fourth foul with just 6.5 seconds left in the third.
Instead of Cranford being down 23-17 going into the final eight minutes, the deficit was 26-17 and now Goeller had four fouls and no points up until that moment.
Both teams scored 10 points in the fourth quarter, with GL preventing any true, final-minute drama.
NOTES: GL lost to 3-peat champion Roselle Catholic 33-26 in the 2011 final, which was the first one played at Kean.
UCT SEMIFINAL AT RAHWAY
3-GOV. LIVINGSTON (19-4) 11 9 6 10 – 36
2-CRANFORD (16-8) 6 2 9 10 – 27
3-GOV. LIVINGSTON HIGHLANDERS (36):
15-Mallory George, senior, 5-0-3-13
22-Erin Ferguson, senior, 6-0-2-14
5-Marielle Jankowski, senior, 0-0-0-0
10-Alyssa Cranston, senior, 0-2-2-8
23-Patrice DiTomasso, junior, 0-0-0-0
44-Katie Rielly, junior, 0-0-0-0
2-Jenny Pires, junior, 0-0-0-0
24-Lauren DiStaso, junior, 0-0-0-0
13-Haley Berliner, sophomore, 0-0-0-0
21-Sara Dilly, sophomore, 0-0-1-1
12-Lauren Sorrano, freshman, 0-0-0-0
Starters: George, Ferguson,
Jankowski, Cranston, Dilly
2-CRANFORD COUGARS (27):
4-Jenna Goeller, senior, 0-0-2-2
30-Alex Krowicki, junior, 0-0-0-0
33-Cerys MacLelland, freshman, 0-0-0-0
15-Carly Maucione, junior, 1-1-2-7
20-Jess McCoy, senior, 2-0-8-12
24-Kaitlin McGovern, senior, 3-0-0-6
13-Mairead McKeary, junior, 0-0-0-0
23-Megan Pringle, junior, 0-0-0-0
21-Hannah Ross, freshman, 0-0-0-0
11-Sarah Ross, freshman, 0-0-0-0
32-Kerry Wischusen, junior, 0-0-0-0
5-Hannah Demars, junior, 0-0-0-0
31-Anastasia Caulfield, junior, 0-0-0-0
Starters: Goeller, McGovern,
McCoy, Maucione, Wischusen
OAK KNOLL 12-0 4TH QUARTER RUN SPARKS COMEBACK WIN OVER LINDEN
Eighth-seeded Oak Knoll, after trailing by nine going into the fourth quarter, outscored fifth-seeded Linden by 13 in the final period for a 46-42 come-from-behind victory in Monday night’s second semifinal at Earl H. Walter Gymnasium.
The Royals were sparked by a 12-0 fourth quarter run that began when they were down 35-26 and ended with them having the lead at 38-35. Junior forward Catherine Bonner scored the first and final of the six 2-point baskets in the stretch, with senior Monica Fritz, senior Kerri Moran and sophomore center Julia Wanfried adding one each in between.
Linden’s biggest lead was 11 at 22-11 with 2:35 to go in the second quarter. Moran scored the period’s final four points – two free throws and one field goal – to pull the Royals to within 22-15 at intermission.
After Oak Knoll was within two in the third quarter at 24-22, Linden went on an 8-0 run – sparked by five points from senior Jada Lewis – to take a 10-point lead at 32-22.
From that point on, Oak Knoll outscored Linden 24-10 in the game’s final 10 minutes.
As a result, Oak Knoll – which has never won the UCT – reached the final for the first time since 1998, while preventing Linden from doing so for the first time since 1994, which was when Linden won the third of its three county crowns.
“Not too bad for an eighth seed,” said second-year Oak Knoll head coach John Bertollo, who has proclaimed that as his team’s mantra for this tournament.
Oak Knoll won its seventh straight to improve to 21-3. The Royals have the most wins of any team in Union County.
Linden had a three-game winning streak snapped and fell to 15-10.
This was a true team effort for Oak Knoll, with four players scoring in double digits. Bonner led with 13, Wanfried was next with 11 and Fritz and Moran poured in 10 each.
Bonner scored the game-winning basket with 21.4 seconds left, giving Oak Knoll a 44-42 advantage and snapping a 42-42 tie that was created when Linden junior Keajah Hall made a free throw.
When Bonner scored she was also fouled by Linden senior Jada Lewis, who led all scorers with her uniform number – 23 points. Bonner missed the ensuing free throw and Hall came down with the rebound.
Linden then made its move past half court, with junior NahQuasia Robinson taking the ball down the right side of the basket for a possible game-tying layup. There was an opening there for Hall, but her shot was off, with Bonner coming down with a huge rebound.
“She saw something and tried to make something positive happen,” Linden third-year head coach Paul Gorski said.
Linden then had to foul five more times to get Oak Knoll in the bonus and the Royals at the line. Bonner made two more free throws with five seconds left to put the Royals ahead 46-42.
Linden came down and missed its final shot. Oak Knoll then began to celebrate a rare UCT semifinal victory that saw it outscore Linden 22-9 in the fourth quarter.
“In the beginning we weren’t playing our game,” Fritz said. “We had to come out in the second half and do what we do.
“Julia Wanfried really stepped up and Catherine Bonner at the end was really something. When we went on that run in the fourth quarter we knew it was our game.”
Linden held Moran, Oak Knoll’s all-time leading scorer who is closing in on 1,500 career points, to six points less than her average. Most times that Moran is held to 10 points means that Oak Knoll is in trouble.
That wasn’t the case against Linden, with every Oak Knoll player who stepped on the court making key contributions.
“This is unreal, we’re all shocked,” Fritz said. “To be playing in the championship game will be a great experience. We’re all happy to be a part of it.”
Linden and Oak Knoll did not face each other this year, but when they played in a conference-crossover game last year, Oak Knoll won 55-54 in overtime at Linden.
Despite being ahead by double digits in the second and third quarters, Gorski was well aware that the game wasn’t over.
“We missed a lot of easy shots,” Gorski said. “The ball didn’t fall our way this time.
“We didn’t push the ball enough. This was the county semifinals and everybody is giving it their all and playing until the end. Good luck to Oak Knoll.”
The final points scored by Lewis pulled Linden to within 40-39 with 1:49 to go.
“Jada did a great job,” Gorski said. “She really carried us.”
Linden’s next two points were scored from the free throw line by Robinson, pulling the Tigers to within 42-41 with 1:16 remaining.
Oak Knoll did not score in double digits until the fourth quarter, producing seven points in the first, eight in the second and nine in the third.
Linden scored in double digits in the first three quarters, producing 12 in the first, 10 in the second and 11 in the third, before not doing so in the fourth.
“This was really a big team effort,” Moran said. “We came out slow and weren’t into it like we were against Roselle Catholic (quarterfinal win). The coaches had to tell us to wake up.
“This was a game where everyone realized that not just one person was going to do it. We talked in practice about our defense and defensively we came through in the second half.”
Oak Knoll, which finished second in the Union County Conference’s Mountain Division with an 11-3 record – the Royals were swept by undefeated champion New Providence and split with third-place Westfield – is now 4-0 against Watchung Division teams. The Royals defeated Scotch Plains and Cranford in conference-crossover clashes and now have UCT wins over Roselle Catholic and Linden.
Oak Knoll’s fifth and final Watchung Division challenge will be against GL Sunday.
Oak Knoll was the first team to beat the top seed in four years when it led top-seeded Roselle Catholic from start to finish in a 49-43 quarterfinal win Thursday night at Rahway. The top seed won the last three tournaments.
“The big thing in basketball is momentum and in the fourth quarter (against Linden) it was on our side,” Bertollo said. “We were able to force a couple of turnovers and make them take a couple of bad shots.
“When we push the ball to get easy shots down low our girls work off that energy and that’s how we go. We got a real team effort, everyone stepped up and we don’t often have four girls score in double digits.”
MORE NOTES: Oak Knoll’s final scheduled regular season game is at Villa Walsh Friday night at 7.
The Royals are not scheduled to play their first Non-Public, North B playoff game until the quarterfinal round March 1. The second-seeded Royals that day will host the winner of the Feb. 27 first round game that pits 10th-seeded St. Mary’s, Rutherford at seventh-seeded Eastern Christian, which is set for a 6 p.m. tipoff.
GL, according to its schedule on www.unioncountyconference.com, does not have another regular season game scheduled and is off until Sunday.
The Highlanders, seeded first in North 2, Group 3, are scheduled to host 16th-seeded Plainfield Feb. 26 at 7 p.m. in a first round game.
That means both Oak Knoll and New Providence won’t have to worry about playing a state tournament game immediately next Monday, which is the day the states begin and the next day after the UCT final.
GL swept Plainfield in Watchung Division play, winning 58-55 at Plainfield on Jan. 10 and 60-36 at home on Jan. 31.
During GL’s present nine-game winning streak the Highlanders have defeated those opponents by an average of 16 points. Seven of the nine wins have come by double digits.
While GL realized what it was like to win its first county crown last year, Oak Knoll – once again – is seeking to accomplish that feat this season. Oak Knoll lost to Union Catholic in the 1998 title game.