FRANKLIN LAKES – Carrying the torch as the last Union County team still standing, Cranford was very much alive at intermission, ahead by five points after closing the first half on a double-digit run.
Where the game turned was the third quarter.
Jefferson quickly scored the first seven points of the second half to take its third lead and following a Cranford 3-pointer, took the lead for good on an inside basket.
Sparked by a dominating, game-high, 24-point performance from junior guard Imani Brown and an emerging inside game from senior center Kristen Swerzinski – she scored 12 of her 15 points in the second half – the Falcons gradually built back up a lead they were not going to let go of again.
Limiting North 2 champion Cranford to single digit scoring in both the third and fourth quarters, North 1 champion Jefferson went on to post a decisive 50-40 triumph in Wednesday night’s Group 3 semifinal at Ramapo.
Jefferson, which improved to 23-7, will next face South Jersey champion Ocean City in Sunday’s Group 3 state championship game at Toms River North. Ocean City defeated Central Jersey champion Freehold Borough 35-26 in Wednesday night’s other Group 3 semifinal, which was contested at Williamstown.
Cranford concluded a fourth consecutive 20-win season at 20-9. Only Roselle Catholic which has produced at least 20 wins the last five seasons, has a longer streak of 20-win campaigns among Union County teams.
Jefferson looked good with a 22-14 advantage before Cranford closed the second quarter on a 13-0 run to take a 27-22 halftime lead. Unlike the GL game when Cranford made its first four shots, the Cougars this time missed their first four, but were able to come back and take two first-half leads.
Cranford shot only 4-of-15 from the floor in the first quarter and was only 2-of-7 in the second before netting the period’s final five field goals and single free throw.
“Our team needs to get it and go and that’s what we were able to do at the end of the first half,” Cranford head coach Jackie Dyer said.
“We were tired, playing all of these games,” Jefferson head coach Jim O’Connor said. “I was happy that we were only down by five at the half.
“We needed to relax and regroup.”
Brown, who led her team with 12 points through the first two quarters which is what she averaged before the states, tied the game for the second time at 27-27 on a layup following a conventional 3-point play produced by Swerzinski.
“That was huge,” O’Connor said. “That got us going, gave us the momentum and really made us forget about how tired we were.”
After Cranford senior Jess McCoy – who paced all scorers with 15 first-half points – picked up two quick fouls for her second and third, Brown followed with another layup to put Jefferson back on top at 29-27.
Cranford senior Jenna Goeller then connected on her second and final 3-pointer to give the Cougars their last lead of 30-29.
Swerzinski, now playing a bit more aggressively inside, grabbed an offense rebound and put the ball in to give Jefferson the lead for good at 31-30 with five minutes to go in the third.
That basket began a 6-0 run, which included a steal and layup by Brown and then Brown grabbing an offensive rebound and scoring again.
Meanwhile, Cranford’s offense, which produced 17 points in the second quarter, completely stalled, with the Cougars missing nine of their first 10 third-quarter field goal attempts.
During the Falcon run, McCoy picked up her fourth foul and had to go to the bench. McCoy finished with a team-high 17 points, but did not have a field goal in the second half.
“We weren’t really attacking the basket,” Dyer said. “We got a little out of rhythm. We slowed down after getting stops on defense.
“We were just a little off and missed some shots after boxing out. Jefferson is a very good team and I don’t think they get the credit they deserve.”
McGovern first and Goeller second fouled out in the fourth quarter.
“Good players want to be around the ball,” O’Connor said. “That’s what happened with the Cranford girls who were in foul trouble.”
After trailing by as much as five points in the third quarter, Cranford twice – on back-to-back possessions – had a chance to tie the game in the fourth quarter, down 37-34.
Goeller missed a 3-pointer that would have tied the game with 6:16 to go and then after two Jefferson misses, McCoy was off with a 3-pointer of her own that would have knotted the score again with 5:41 left.
Cranford pulled to within 46-40 on a basket by Carly Maucione with 41.5 seconds remaining.
After Brown made one of two free throws for a 47-40 lead, McCoy missed a shot and then Cranford had to foul with 25 seconds left.
At that point there just wasn’t enough time for Cranford to pull it off.
“All season long we fought back and never gave up,” Dyer said.
Cranford seniors McCoy, McGovern and Goeller were part of a program that also went 21-8 and won N2, G3 as freshmen and then finished 22-6 as sophomores and 24-5 as juniors.
Cranford’s record the past four seasons is an impressive 87-28 (.757).
“They reached three state sectional finals in four years and won two of them, that doesn’t happen often (in the Cranford program),” Dyer said.
Cranford’s season began Dec. 14 at GL, with a win, and concluded March 6 in Bergen County, with a loss. Between the Cougars won at GL again to win their second sectional title in four seasons.
Not a bad year at all for the Cougars.
Not bad at all.
GROUP 3 SEMIFINAL AT RAMAPO
N2, G3 CHAMP-CRANFORD (20-9) 10 17 5 8 – 40
N1, G3 CHAMP-JEFFERSON (23-7) 14 8 13 15 – 50
CRANFORD COUGARS (40):
15-Carly Maucione, junior, 1-0-0-2
4-Jenna Goeller, senior, 0-2-2-8
32-Kerry Wischusen, junior, 1-2-0-8
24-Kaitlin McGovern, senior, 2-0-0-4
20-Jess McCoy, senior, 6-1-2-17
13-Mairead McKeary, junior, 0-0-1-1
Starters: Maucione, Goeller,
Wischusen, McGovern, McCoy
JEFFERSON FALCONS (50):
20-Claudia Tietz, junior, 1-0-0-2
15-Imani Brown, junior, 9-0-6-24
30-Julia Murawinski, freshman, 3-0-0-6
45-Kristen Swerzinski, senior, 5-0-5-15
10-Brandy Corsaro, senior, 1-0-0-2
24-Renee Lopez, junior, 0-0-0-0
34-Kaitlin Ventrice, 0-0-0-0
Starters: Corsaro, Brown
Lopez, Ventrice, Swerzinski