Lady Raiders survive ugly start in SCT

HHS goes for county repeat vs. Rutgers Prep

By: Rudy Brandl
   MONTGOMERY — Ali DeLuca refused to let the ugliness continue. There was no way the Hillsborough High senior point guard was going to exit the Somerset County Tournament stage in this fashion.
   DeLuca and her HHS basketball teammates pulled together and rallied for a 40-33 victory over Watchung Hills to advance to Saturday’s county finals against Rutgers Prep in a rematch of last year’s title game. DeLuca scored 10 of her 11 points to fuel an 18-7 closing surge that enabled Hillsborough to survive.
   "I’ve always felt we’re a second-half team," DeLuca said afterward. "We just needed to fight back and play our game."
   The Lady Raiders couldn’t have played much worse than they did in the first half of Saturday’s SCT semifinals against Delaware East Division rival Watchung Hills. Whether they were nervous, lulled to sleep by the absence of Watchung standout Megan Kopecki or just not executing, the Lady Raiders played an atrocious first half.
   It was hard to believe they were still in the game after making only 2-of-22 shots from the field and 3-of-7 from the line. The Hillsborough girls scored seven points in the first half, yet they trailed by only seven.
   Watchung put its fair share of dents in the backboard as well, connecting on only 4-of-21 attempts from the field and 6-of-13 from the line. Both teams committed 10 turnovers in the first half.
   "It was frustrating, ridiculous, embarrassing," DeLuca said. "I felt like the first half mirrored the way we were playing earlier in the season. We didn’t want to get back to that state of our game."
   DeLuca was referring to the way Hillsborough played during January, when inconsistency plagued the team and led to four divisional losses that prevented a repeat title. Saturday’s victory was the ninth in a row for the Lady Raiders, who now have a chance to repeat as county champions.
   "I don’t know a lot of things this year," a bewildered and relieved HHS head coach Jim Reese said. "It didn’t look great, but all of a sudden things started to flow a little."
   The Lady Raiders turned this game around with some clutch 3-point shooting from junior guards Lisa Cannellos and Heather Neumann. Both players hit two threes in the second half when Hillsborough started to come alive offensively.
   After another two-plus minutes of sloppy play to start the third quarter, Cannellos fired in a three from the left wing to put the Lady Raiders in double figures for the game and make it 14-10. Neumann hit a bomb from the right wing with 3:44 left in the third to give HHS its first lead (17-16) since it was 1-0. Cannellos later connected again from the left side to tie the game at 22-22 but Watchung scored the next four points and owned a 26-22 lead at the end of the quarter.
   Although they were still trailing, the Lady Raiders felt better about the way they were playing. Putting the ball in the basket gave the team more confidence entering the final eight minutes.
   "We had to make some shots," Reese said. "We knew that couldn’t continue and we had to get going. Lisa and Heather made some threes and Ali hit some baskets down the stretch."
   Hillsborough dominated the fourth quarter, forcing 10 turnovers in the final eight minutes. DeLuca, after being held to a single free throw that produced the game’s first point, broke out of her slump with 10 points and four steals in the fourth quarter.
   DeLuca accomplished all this despite playing the final 4:46 with four fouls. Ebony Jones picked up her third late in the third quarter, so Reese had to be careful with his defensive strategy.
   "We went with a half-court trap and it reaped some dividends," Reese said. "But I have to be judicious with my use of pressure because we don’t have much depth and we were in foul trouble."
   Watchung still had a four-point lead after the first minute of the fourth quarter before DeLuca scored five straight points to give her team a one-point edge. She went the length of the floor after a steal and stopped in the middle of the lane for a jumper that made it 29-28 with 5:05 to play.
   DeLuca committed her fourth personal on the next possession, which ended with Jessica Zigarelli hitting a free throw to complete a 3-point play for a 31-29 Watchung lead. That set the stage for a fabulous final four minutes.
   Kelsey Kutch, who had a quiet offensive day with nine points, came through with a huge blocked shot on Zigarelli, who appeared to be cruising in for an open layup. Less than a minute later, Neumann nailed a three from the right corner to give the Lady Raiders a 33-31 lead with 2:10 to go.
   "They were in a 3-2 zone so I went to the corner," Neumann said. "I had my confidence back and Ali hit me with a good pass. Once I released it, I pretty much knew it was going in."
   Watchung didn’t quit. Tara Tielmann, who led all scorers with 14 points, made another good move down low and tied the game at 33-33 with 2:43 to play. Those were Watchung’s last points of the day.
   Jones made a steal that set DeLuca in motion for a transition basket that put the Lady Raiders ahead to stay. DeLuca stopped at the foul line, let the defense run by her and calmly drained a shot to make it 35-33 with 2:07 to play.
   The game was still up for grabs until the final 30 seconds, when HHS hit 5-of-7 at the free throw line to clinch the victory. Neumann made two huge ones with 29.1 seconds left that bumped the margin to four points, making it a two possession game. Jones made another steal and DeLuca tacked on three more free throws in the final 10 seconds.
   Less than an hour after playing their worst half of the season, the Lady Raiders were celebrating a victory that sent them to their second straight county championship game.
   "Watchung played a great game without their best player," Reese said. "I think we just wore them down at the end."
   "When we went into the locker room at halftime, we knew we had to pick it up," Neumann added. "I knew we’d be a different team in the second half."
   The Lady Raiders (17-6) will take on Rutgers Prep in a rematch of last year’s SCT championship game. Prep reached the finals with a few ugly victories of its own, squeaking past Montgomery and Somerville in the last two rounds. HHS defeated Prep 48-42 in January.
   "They’re a very good team and they present different problems for us," Reese said. "We have to hold our own on the boards. We don’t want to let them set up and get the ball inside to their big people. We want to get out and run on them."
   That’s just fine with DeLuca, who loves to run the floor. She’s hoping to add another county title to her memory bank and to the school’s trophy case.
   "I have such fond memories of winning the counties last year," DeLuca said. "I’m a senior and I want to leave with something to hold onto. It would be great to leave with another win."