Howell in full control of A North hoops race

Staff Writer

 Howell High School’s Sarah Olson, seen in action against Manalapan, has helped lead the Rebels to the top of the Shore Conference A North Division standings.  CLAIRE SHEPROW Howell High School’s Sarah Olson, seen in action against Manalapan, has helped lead the Rebels to the top of the Shore Conference A North Division standings. CLAIRE SHEPROW A t this time last year, the Howell High School girls basketball team was on the outside looking in when it came to playing postseason basketball. A year later, the Rebels are pursuing a Shore Conference division championship.

Senior swing player Sarah Olson credited Howell’s late-season run in 2009-10, when the Rebels got hot and qualified for the Shore Conference and Central Jersey tournaments, with being the difference between the two teams. The Rebels gained confidence in their push to the postseason, and that confidence has carried over to this winter, she said.

“We were a little young last year and weren’t sure we could win,” Olson said. “This year we know we can do it.”

The Rebels have played like a confident team this winter, and as the Shore Conference A North Division makes the turn for the second half of the 2010-11 season, the Rebels have a two-game lead over Middletown South and Freehold Township in the race for the title.

The Rebels (10-2) took charge of the division last week by beating Freehold Township, 44-41, on Jan. 18, and Middletown South, 54-43, on Jan. 20 at home to open up a two-game lead. Howell improved to 7-0 in A North with a 44-25 victory over Marlboro on Jan. 24.

The Rebels have been playing with a sense of urgency all season and have been jumping out to early leads, leaving nothing to chance.

“We know what’s on the line,” coach Bill Gallacher said. “The girls know they have to come out with intensity from the start. We are trying not to lose focus.”

That attitude may explain why the Rebels have thus far avoided any upset losses.

Olson, who is headed for the New Jersey Institute of Technology to continue her career, is the team’s glue. She is Howell’s most complete player and is the person the other cagers look to when it is time for someone to make a play.

The difference in Olson’s play this year is that she does not feel pressured to do it all. She lets the game come to her rather than forcing things.

“That’s the beauty of this team: if I’m not scoring, someone else is,” she said. “We have spots for everyone.”

The players’ versatility has played a big role in Howell’s success. Gallacher can go to a big lineup with Alex Mine and Lauren Kolacki, or he can go with a smaller and quicker lineup with Christina Justiniano, Allie Moreland and Marina Lukianov joining starting guards Kaitlyn Schmid and Shannon Pickett.

“We haven’t had such a deep bench in a long time,” Gallacher said.

The bench has also keyed the team’s top priority: defense. “We’ve had a nice defensive effort,” the coach said.

Defense is something a team can bring to the floor every night, and that may be the biggest reason why the Rebels have not stumbled in the division. Howell’s only loss was to Red Bank Catholic in a nondivision contest.

Howell likes to generate offense off turnovers and rebounds on the defensive end with Schmid or Olson running the fast break.

In Howell’s win over Freehold Township, Justiniano provided a needed spark off the bench in the second quarter on both ends of the floor, allowing Howell to build a 22- 11 lead against the Patriots.

Freehold Township, which overcame a 26-point deficit to upset Manasquan in a holiday tournament championship game last month, clawed its way back into the game and trailed 22-19 early in the third quarter.

Olson then took charge for Howell, nailing two three-point field goals from the top of the key and helping the Rebels open a 40- 29 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

However, the game was far from over.

Freehold Township coach John Sciarappa takes advantage of a deep bench to apply full-court defensive pressure for 32 minutes. He believes that at some point the pressure will wear down an opponent.

In the fourth quarter, turnovers began to mount for Howell, and the Patriots were able to rally. A seven-point run highlighted by anAshley Stenftennagel three-point field goal and a Brittany Incorvia layup off a steal pulled the Patriots to within 42-39 with 2:00 to play.

Moreland made two free throws for Howell with 1:02 left to stretch the lead to 44-39.

Lily Weinstein countered with two free throws for Freehold Township with :45 left, and the Patriots were within one possession again, trailing 44-41.

Freehold Township forced another turnover with :20 left, giving the Patriots one last chance to tie the game.

“We thought they would try to drive and kick it out to Stenftennagel,” said Gallacher. “We didn’t want her to get the shot.”

The Rebels kept Stenftennagel from taking the last shot, and the Patriots could only get a forced three-point attempt that was no good as Howell held on for the win that dropped Freehold Township two games behind the Rebels in A North.

The Patriots, one of the real surprise teams of the season, fell to 9-2 overall and 3-2 in division play.

With a six-point loss at Middletown South and a three-point setback at Howell, Sciarappa believes his team is still in the A North division hunt because the Eagles and the Rebels have to come to Freehold Township for rematches.

The Rebels came back two nights later and handed Middletown South its second loss in the division, both to Howell. Schmid did a little bit of everything, with five assists and three steals to go with her nine points.

Milne led Howell with 12 points, and Kolacki had 10 points and six assists. Shannon Pickett scored seven points in the fourth quarter (nine in all) that kept the Eagles at bay.

Middletown South’s (7-3, 4-2) highscoring Meghan McGuinness was limited to nine points by the Rebels’ defense.