Lady Raiders come back for crucial victory

Rainey leads fourth quarter surge

By: Rudy Brandl
   BRIDGEWATER — The Hillsborough High girls knew they couldn’t afford to lose another basketball game.
   After opening the season with five consecutive victories in December, the Lady Raiders started the New Year with a pair of ugly home losses, including a critical Delaware Division setback to North Hunterdon early last week.
   When the HHS girls hit the road to face divisional rival Bridgewater-Raritan Jan. 8, they had to come up big.
   A second loss in the league would have equaled possible early extinction from the Delaware Division title chase and a third straight overall defeat could have done serious damage to the team’s psyche and confidence level. It took a full four quarters, but the Lady Raiders turned a tough night and an ugly game into a most satisfying triumph.
   Trailing the entire game in a turnover-infested contest in which both teams gave the ball away at least 30 times, Hillsborough fought and scratched and clawed its way to a 44-29 victory. It wasn’t pretty, but as HHS head coach Jim Reese learned long ago, all wins count the same on the record.
   "We didn’t dazzle anybody, but we gutted it out," Reese said after his team improved its record to 6-2 overall, 3-1 in the division. "We held it together. They all stepped up down the stretch. We hung in there. This was more about will than skill."
   Hillsborough kept fighting back and falling behind all night. The visitors cut a 12-point deficit in the second quarter down to two early in the third before falling behind by 10 again with less than four minutes remaining in the third quarter. B-R was able to answer every Hillsborough spurt except the last one.
   The Lady Raiders had one big, game-clinching run left in them. Still trailing by six entering the final frame, HHS didn’t allow a single field goal for the final eight minutes. Bridgewater-Raritan went up by seven on a Melanie Gibbons free throw with 7:38 to play but didn’t score another point.
   Hillsborough closed the game on a 12-0 run, forcing eight B-R turnovers in the flurry, to literally steal one from the home team. Senior forward Jess Rainey, who poured in a season-high 19 points to lead all scorers, netted eight of the team’s points in crunch time.
   "After the loss (to North Hunterdon) on Tuesday, we really wanted to win today," said Rainey, who also led the HHS girls with nine steals, five assists and pulled down four rebounds. "It was about heart. We just showed up and played hard. Everyone put in a good effort."
   The Lady Raiders needed every ounce of effort to offset 30 turnovers. On the bright side, the HHS girls also forced Bridgewater into 31 turnovers, including eight in the final quarter when Hillsborough spent nearly two minutes milking the clock.
   Hillsborough never led until Rainey’s left-handed layup on the fast break with 2:23 remaining. Rainey started her personal fourth quarter barrage with a nifty drive along the left baseline with 7:11 to go. That cut the B-R lead to 39-34, but then neither team scored for over three minutes.
   HHS freshman Kelsey Kutch, making her first career start at the power forward slot, converted a key putback of a missed free throw by Ashley Coheleach to make it 39-36 with 3:51 left. Coheleach and Rainey each hit front ends of 1-and-1 free throw situations to slice the deficit to one.
   Bridgewater continued to get in deeper foul trouble and accumulated 10 to land in the double-bonus as Hillsborough continued to rally. Rainey’s go-ahead basket was followed by a Gibbons charging foul that allowed the Lady Raiders to play possession.
   "We realized it (that Bridgewater had 10 team fouls) but I was more concerned about not turning the ball over," Rainey said.
   "We ran our motion offense very well in the last few minutes," Reese said. "I was really pleased with the heart of the younger kids. They played very well tonight."
   Reese was referring particularly to sophomore guard Ali DeLuca, who joined Rainey in double figures with 10 points, and Kutch, who netted four points and grabbed several rebounds in the second half.
   The Lady Raiders learned a lot about themselves in this game. They didn’t panic, even when struggling through some horrible streaks of bad shooting and sloppy ball handling. They kept battling back and ultimately survived a stiff challenge on the road against a good team and major rival.
   "This was a huge opportunity for us to realize what we can do when we don’t give up," Rainey said. "We needed this win for our morale. It was definitely uplifting."
   FREE THROWS — Hillsborough hit the identical point total for the third straight game in the 44-38 loss to North … the HHS girls actually led by two points after one quarter but only managed a basket by Rainey in the second quarter and never recovered … senior guard Allison Kutch scored 10 of her team-high 16 points in a red-hot first quarter but managed just a pair of 3-pointers in the second half to finish with four bombs … the Lady Raiders were scheduled to host Warren Hills before traveling to Phillipsburg tomorrow night in this week’s Delaware Division games. Hillsborough will host East Brunswick Saturday afternoon in a non-conference battle.