SUMMIT, NJ — It took nearly three minutes before the Hilltoppers lit the scoreboard.
It took nearly five before Summit made its first field goal.
Although the Hilltoppers did not fill the hoop immediately, they were just warming up.
Sometimes the knockout punch can be delivered early on. Summit used the first quarter to pound its Essex County opponent, putting visiting Mount St. Dominic Academy in a hole the Lions out of which they could never really come close to climbing.
The Hilltoppers scored the final 17 points of the game’s first eight minutes and, after being down 2-0, never trailed again in producing a decisive 48-35 girls’ basketball triumph at home on Thursday, Dec. 23.
Summit took a 3-0 record into its holiday tournament games at home against J.P. Stevens on Tuesday, Dec. 28, and versus either Hanover Park or Elizabeth on Wednesday, Dec. 29.
The Hilltoppers, who are 2-0 in Union County Conference–Watchung Division play, with wins against Union Catholic and Cranford, continue division play on Tuesday, Jan. 4, at state-ranked New Providence.
For the third time in three tries, Summit won by double-digits. The Hilltoppers are showing that, despite 6-foot-2 Dartmouth-bound senior center Olivia Lawlor being the only returning starter, they are playing as if they have five returning starters.
“We’re playing great as a team right now,” said Lawlor, who led all scorers with 25 points in the triumph against Mount St. Dominic.
That put Lawlor, a four-year varsity starter, at 960 career points.
“Defense has been the key for us so far and pushing the ball up in transition,” Lawlor said.
Mount St. Dominic shooting guard Alexa Murphy gave the Lions of Caldwell a 2-0 lead. She finished with a team-high 12 points.
Scrappy Summit junior guard Samantha Mercurio, constantly hustling and all over the floor with no regard for her body, scored Summit’s first 4 points from the free-throw line, after getting fouled going to the basket.
Mercurio finished with 14 points, 10 of them coming in the first half.
Summit junior guard Gillian Lustenberger immediately provided clutch shooting once she entered the game, hitting her first two 3-point attempts, both coming from the left side, to put the Hilltoppers ahead 10-2.
Summit missed the first five shots it took but rebounded to make its next five, to shoot exactly 50 percent from the floor in the first quarter.
Lawlor made Summit’s next three shots, the first inside and the next two from the right side, the first of those a 3-pointer.
Suddenly, Summit led 17-2, entering the second quarter.
“We have a young team, and we’re still trying to find ourselves, but we just beat three good teams,” said Tom Kenny, in his eighth year as Summit’s head coach.
Kenny began the season with a record of 91-75 at Summit. In his 15 seasons as head coach at West Essex, before he first became an assistant coach at Summit, Kenny won 202 games at the North Caldwell school.
After the win against Mount St. Dominic, Kenny stood at 296 lifetime wins, with 94 of them at Summit.
“I’m happy with our progression, but we still have miles to go,” Kenny said.
Mercurio also grabbed seven rebounds and dished out three assists. Her 14 points was a career high. She left the game for a few minutes in the first half, after diving for a loose ball and losing a contact lens.
When she came back into play, she continued to go hard after any bouncing ball near her.
“Samantha is absolutely part of our grit,” Kenny said.
Although Summit also outscored Mount St. Dominic, by slim margins, in the second and third quarters, the visitors managed to pull to within 11 at 35-24 with 3:46 to go in the third quarter. A basket from the left side by Juliet Howell, who finished with 11 points, closed a 10-2 Lions run.
“We got out to the big lead and then we still had to play, still push ourselves,” Kenny said. “I think a big reason for our 3-0 start is that we’re finding people that are capable other than Olivia, especially on offense.”
Summit came back from that Mount St. Dominic surge by scoring the final 7 points of the third quarter to take a 42-24 lead into the fourth period. Lawlor scored twice inside, Emily Demm added a free throw and then Mercurio filled the hoop for the only time in the stanza.
“We’ve had highs and lows, but every game so far we’ve been able to get back and get stops after misses,” Lawlor said.
Summit’s senior captains are Olivia Lawlor, No. 15; Jessica Penner, No. 10; and Laurel Zona, No. 20.
Photo by JR Parachini