WEST LONG BRANCH – After beating Manasquan in 2016 for the program’s 13th Shore Conference Tournament championship, Saint John Vianney advanced to the SCT final the next three seasons only to come away empty handed all three times.
That all changed Saturday night at the Ocean First Bank Center at Monmouth University as the top-seeded Lancers held off a late charge by second-seeded Manchester – ranked fourth in the state – to break their three-game losing streak in the final beating the Hawks, 57-50.
The win was even sweeter as it avenged their loss to Manchester in last year’s SCT final.
“We spoke a little bit this morning about the negativity of being in the losing locker room last year,” said Saint John Vianney head coach Dawn Karpell. “I felt confident that wasn’t going to be the case this year.”
Saturday night’s win didn’t come easy though. Two free throws by Lancers junior guard Katie Hill put SJV up by four, 47-43, with 3:03 left in the game and the Lancers appeared to be in control.
A three-point play, however, by junior forward Destiny Adams on Manchester’s ensuing possession pulled them to within one, 47-46, with 2:45 left in the game and senior Serenity Anderson’s two free throws put the Hawks back on top, 48-47, with two minutes remaining.
You could cut the tension in the air at this point as the restless SJV fans looked on in disbelief with the possibility of another loss in the final now staring them right in the face.
Fear not though. Hill and sophomore guard Madison St. Rose, who are the only returning starters from last year’s team, were not about to let this game slip away. The two seasoned veterans went to work and combined to score 16 of the Lancers’ final 17 points.
“Maddie and Katie last year were a little overwhelmed by the moment,” said Karpell. “I felt confident that wasn’t going to be the case today. The two of them definitely pulled the other kids through that. Their leadership was really huge.”
St. Rose’s clutch offensive rebound and putback gave the lead – one they would not relinquish – back to the Lancers, 49-48, and on the play Hill was fouled positioning herself for a rebound and then calmly sank both free throws for a 51-48 lead with 1:49 to play.
“The whole team stepped up in the end,” said Hill. “When they went up by one we didn’t panic. We stayed composed and continued to play our game. It gave us an extra push to get through the end.”
That was the final of seven lead changes in the second half with the Lancers then closing out the game on a 10-2 run in the final 1:49 – most of it coming at the free-throw line.
Saint John Vianney’s ability to convert free throws in crunch time was the difference as Hill and St. Rose went 6-of-7 from the stripe down the stretch, while Manchester (23-4) was just 6-of-11 with Adams missing both free throws with 22.8 seconds and making just 4-of-9 in the final minutes.
With 3.8 seconds left in the game, St. Rose pulled down her final rebound of the night and was fouled immediately. As she walked to the foul line she cracked a smile knowing the game was theirs before she calmly sank both shots to put the finishing touches on the game.
“Last year we were really sad seeing that the seniors couldn’t get the win,” said St. Rose. “I just kept telling my teammates that we weren’t losing and we had to keep pushing. The score might’ve gotten close but whatever we had to do, we were going to do it. We weren’t losing.”
As those final seconds ticked off the clock no one was more excited than Karpell who leaped in the air pumping her fist in jubilation.
This just might be Karpell’s greatest coaching job yet of her illustrious career. This was a team that wasn’t supposed to do anything this season without a single senior on the team and only two players who played any significant minutes a year ago.
As a testament to Karpell’s coaching, the Lancers are now 25-1 and ranked No. 1 in the state.
The Lancers jumped out to an 8-0 lead to start the game but Manchester closed the gap to five, 14-9, at the end of the first quarter.
Hill’s three-pointer and Megan Callahan’s layup off an assist from Hill gave the Lancers a 22-14 lead with 4:14 left in the second quarter but the Hawks closed out the half on a 7-0 run highlighted by Anderson’s three-point shot with 29 seconds left to pull within one, 22-21, at the half.
St. Rose was voted the MVP with 23 points, seven rebounds, two assists and five steals, while Hill added 15 points, five boards, three assists and two blocks. Ashley O’Connor, who had a clutch offensive rebound and assist to St. Rose with 32.8 seconds left, had eight points, three boards and a steal and Callahan contributed six points, five rebounds and four blocked shots.
Adam finished with 25 points, eight boards while Anderson added 11 points three rebounds and four steals.
“We’re just going to enjoy this one as long as we can for a couple of days,” said Karpell. “This tournament prepares you for the states like no other. We just won a couple of really tough games back-to-back so the fact we were able to do that and execute in consecutive games I’m hoping that will propel us in the states.”