TOMS RIVER - Prior to this season, none of the members of the St. John Vianney girls basketball team had played in a tournament championship game. Now, they are one win away from adding to the storied legacy of the Lady Lancers program and cementing themselves as one of its best teams ever.

Senior Kelly Campbell led the St. John Vianney effort with 23 points and nine rebounds as the Lancers pulled away for a 57-36 over NJSIAA Group IV champion Lenape in the Tournament of Champions semifinal.

St. John Vianney will meet Manasquan for the fourth time this season Monday in the T of C final at Sun National Bank Arena in Trenton at 6 p.m. in the Lancers' first trip to the championship game since 2010.

Vianney senior Kelly Campbell scored 23 points to lead the Lancers past Lenape on Friday. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

"The seniors have been working at this for four years," Campbell said. "This is everything we've really worked for, so Monday is huge for us. We're really going to get after it."

 

St. John Vianney (30-1) overcame a foul-riddled first half by both teams by pulling away in the third quarter. Among the many players in foul trouble in the first half, Vianney junior Kimi Evans bounced back with 11 of her 14 points in the third quarter as the Lancers outscored the Indians 19-12 in the third to seize control of the game.

"We kind of knew that throwing the ball into me was working, so my coach was just telling us to move the ball around and look for me and work it in to get a good shot," Evans said. "My teammates were able to find me. The passes they made to me in the third quarter were awesome and it made easier for me to finish."

If the Indians had any chance to rally in the fourth quarter, the Lancers dashed them early with an 8-0 run exclusively on points from the free-throw line. Campbell hit 4-of-4 during the stretch and the team was 8-for-10 while locking Lenape down on the other end of the floor. The run gave St. John Vianney a 53-29 lead, its largest of the game.

"We just needed to run offense," St. John Vianney coach Dawn Karpell said. "End of the first quarter and into the second quarter, we had a lot of different lineups out there and we had to lean on Kelly really hard and then when (the officials) started blowing (the whistle) like that, just go to the basket because they are calling everything. It didn't make for great game play, but the third quarter was more how we play and what we're about."

Of Vianney's 12 fourth-quarter points, 10 came from the line, with senior Zoe Pero driving for two and drawing the foul for the lone Lancers field goal of the quarter.

In the first half alone, the two teams combined for 31 fouls, 22-for-40 shooting from the free-throw line and 9-for-41 shooting from the field. The Lancers finished 27-for-40 from the line, with Campbell shooting 15-for-16.

Pero added 10 points and five rebounds off the bench for St. John Vianney, which offset a roller-coaster offensive game with a vintage defensive performance outside of the foul trouble of the first half. Lenape (30-3) shot 9-for-40 (22.5 percent) for the game and turned the ball over 13 times against Vianney's defense.

Indians leading scorer and Siena recruit Maddie Sims finished with only one point and went 0-for-7 from the field, and the Lancers did not have to defend her with Evans. With Gigi Caponegro (13 rebounds) and Pero matching up against the 6-2 Sims, Evans patrolled the paint to the tune of three blocks and six rebounds in the limited time.

"We knew they like to attack the rim and kick for threes, so we wanted to sit her in help as much as possible," Karpell said. "Her length just really bothered them. Even when they got in there, they were looking to see where she was at."

From left, senior Gigi Caponegro, senior Vaness Pinho, senior Kelly Campbell and junior Kimi Evans. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

The Lancers will play in their 10th T of C championship game Monday and first since 2010. St. John Vianney has won the T of C six times, tied with Malcolm X Shabazz of Newark for the most titles all time.

Monday's game at Sun National Back Arena in Trenton will mark the fifth time that two Shore Conference teams have met in the T of C final and fourth time since 2008. Vianney's last two trips to the championship game were against a Shore Conference opponent - the Lancers defeated Colts Neck in 2009 and lost to Neptune in 2010.

St. John Vianney won all three previous meetings between the two Shore Conference Class A Central rivals this season, including a 59-48 victory in the Shore Conference Tournament final.

"This is our biggest goal of the season," Evans said. "The seniors and juniors have never been here before, so we're going to come out and play as hard as we can and we're really excited to get back on the court for one more game."

The Lancers did not take Lenape lightly despite handling the Indians, 62-43, during the regular season and will have a similar frame of mind against Manasquan. Although St. John Vianney swept the season series and won the most recent meeting by double-digits on a neutral floor, Manasquan took the Lancers to overtime the first time the two rivals met.

"Every game with them is competitive and any game can be close," Campbell said. "We have to come out like we always do and definitely not overlook them."