Capture First Sectional Title in 35 Years
By Mike Ready
MIDDLETOWN – Since 2009, Neptune has eliminated Middletown South four times from the state tournament, including losses in both the ‘09 and ’10 Central Jersey Group III finals. But Tuesday night, in front of a standing room only crowd, the No.1 seeded Eagles held on to defeat second seeded Neptune, 38-35, for their first sectional crown since 1979.
The trilling win was particularly satisfying for Eagle head coach Tom Brennan, who holds a 295-142 record in 18 seasons at the helm, as he not only won his first sectional title, but won it against his long-time nemesis and thorn in his side, Neptune.
“Before the game we were saying this is not just for us, it’s for Coach Brennan,” junior forward Jill Falvey said. “We wanted it for him, he deserves it. He works harder than anyone does; he gets up at four in the morning to watch film. I feel like by winning this game we proved to him how much we appreciate him as a coach and how hard we want to work for him.”
“I’ve been in this game four times,” Brennan said, “All were losses to Neptune; it’s nice to exercise the ghost. I don’t know if it means more beating Neptune, but if you were writing a book I guess that’s how it’s got to go down. There’s a lot of history over there, so when you beat a team like that you know you’ve really done something really special.”
Brennan, known for his hard-nosed man-to-man defense, gradually made the switch to the unfamiliar 1-2-2 zone defense about two weeks ago with this game in mind, feeling it would give his team a better chance at neutralizing Neptune’s explosiveness off the dribble.
Then, this week, Brennan made a game altering change, moving sophomore guard Stephanie Karcz from up top of the zone to the elbow in exchange for senior guard Christiana Rutkowski.
We were really nervous at first with the change,” Karcz said. “It was a totally different thing for us, but we practiced it and got everything done we needed to, and obviously it worked with all the steals we got and the baskets we got off the steals.”
“I had to stay positive and have faith in the strategy,” Rutkowski said, who garnered five steals, all in the second half. “I kept thinking to myself to just work hard and good things will happen. Coach Brennan has taught me so much about basketball; he’s taught me what it means to be a teammate and be there for someone, which is what our defense is all about.”
Both moves paid off as the players bought into Brennan’s scheme, continually frustrating the Fliers offense while keeping them off balance all night.
The Eagles defense held Neptune to just 35 points after the Fliers had scored 93 points in their quarterfinal win against Woodbridge and 78 points in Friday’s semifinal win versus Wall, as well as making a whopping 10 steals on the night.
Neptune took a 21-17 halftime lead after going on a 12-0 run spanning the last minute of the first quarter and the first four minutes of the second. The Fliers held the Eagles to five points in the second quarter, while scoring the final four points for the lead.
“We got that nice 12-3 lead by pushing the ball up-court and taking the early shot,” Brennan said. “So at halftime we said we’ve played to different games already; the slow-down game and the speed-up game and the speed-up game is the one we’re most comfortable with so we went with that. Any rebounds we got we wanted to get out and run.”
Karcz had seven points in the first half, including a huge 3-pointer to thwart Neptune’s 12-0 run and stall the momentum the Fliers were running on.
Neptune senior forward Lorena Hubbard led with seven first-half points, scoring her 1000th career point with 42 seconds remaining in the first quarter. The DI prospect added six rebounds and two blocks in the half.
The Eagles pulled back in front, 24-23, at 5:01 of the third quarter after an Olivia Liskowitz bucket followed a Haley Dalonzo mid-range jumper. Karcz’ free throw made it 25-23, and from there, Rutkowski took over.
Junior Angela DeBartolome rebounded and threw a perfect full-court strike to Rutkowski, who was fouled as she drove the basket. At the line for two shots, she calmly sank both to put the Eagles up by four, 27-23.
On the ensuing play, Rutkowski got the steal at midcourt and was again fouled as she approached the hoop; missing the first and getting all net on the second.
After a Neptune turnover, DeBartolme grabbed a Rutkowski miss and found her alone in the corner just inside 3-point arch and she nailed it with 20 seconds left in the third to put the Eagles up 30-23.
Neptune then pushed the ball up court only to find Rutkowski in their path, who again made the steal and put up a shot at the buzzer that bounced off the rim. The Eagles ended the third quarter up 30-23 after holding the Fliers to two points and scoring the final 10 points of the quarter.
“I can’t speak enough about that kid (Rutkowski),” Brennan said. “She’s been a varsity player for four years, three as a starter, and no one deserves this more than her. She gives everything and not just on the basketball court; she’s just a great human being.”
The Fliers then reeled off eight-straight points to start the fourth quarter, punctuated by Marajiah Bacon’s pretty fade away across the paint for two and the foul to complete the 3-point play. However, Neptune would have to wait another five minutes before it scored again, as the up and down play by both teams, so prevalent in this game, continued.
With the Eagles now facing a 31-30 deficit and not having scored in almost three minutes into the fourth, Rachel Becker tied it at 31-31 with a free throw and Karcz drove inside to sink a floater in the lane to make it 33-31 at 4:55.
A series of three steals by Becker, Rutkowski, who drew a foul in the paint and hit both shots, and Liskowitz, combined with three foul shots by Karcz in 57 seconds allowed the Eagles to re-establish a seven-point lead, 38-31, with only 45.1 seconds left in this up and down contest.
However, the game was far from over as Desiree Allen’s runner down the lane and a putback by Hubbard, got the Fliers to within three, 38-35, with 21.4 remaining. Hubbard was fouled on the play, missed the free throw and the rebound went off Becker, giving Neptune one last chance at a 3-point shot.
Marajiah Bacon’s 3-point attempt was off the rim and Miesha Bacon grabbed the rebound, but in the fury of the moment, Karcz came up with the biggest steal of the night to close out the game and give her coach a long overdue sectional title.
“They’ve been resilient all year,” Brennan said. “We’ve been faced with peaks and valleys all year and that’s the phrase we like to use; resilient. It was used a couple of times tonight by them and that just shows the maturity they have, that they recognize how fast you get out of the valleys and how fast you climb the next peak.”
Karcz finished with 15 points, eight rebounds, four steals and three assists. Dalonzo added seven points, four rebounds and three assists while Rutkowski netted seven points, one rebound and five steals.
Falvey had a tremendous defensive game against Neptune’s two big men, Hubbard and Crenshaw, hauling down seven second-half boards while chipping in two points. Becker ended with five points, one board, a steal and added three points.
For Neptune, Hubbard had a game-high 15 rebounds, with three blocked shots and five points. Crenshaw led the Fliers with 12 points, eight rebounds, one block and a steal.
The Fliers high-scoring guard, Marajiah Bacon was held to 10 points, seven below her season average of 17 points/game.
The Eagles will travel to Deptford Thursday to face Camden Wilson @ 4:00 p.m. in the NJSIAA Group semifinals.