St. John Vianney Roars Back from 14-Point Halftime Deficit to Win Non-Public A Title
TOMS RIVER - St. John Vianney spent the day before Saturday's NJSIAA Non-Public A final against Immaculate Heart Academy watching the tape of last year's loss to IHA in the same spot, vowing not to have a repeat of last season's disappointment.
For the first 16 minutes, the Lancers looked like they were filming a rerun as they dug themselves a 14-point halftime hole against the Blue Eagles. However, the second the whistle sounded to start the third quarter, the girls who spent the week hashtagging #UnfinishedBusiness on Twitter, the perennial state power known for its swarming defense and relentless attack, finally emerged.
St. John Vianney roared back by holding IHA to 13 second-half points on its way to a thrilling 50-46 victory at Pine Belt Arena that gave the Lancers their 16th Group title and their first Non-Public A crown since winning four straight from 2008-11. Junior point guard Kelly Campbell had a team-high 12 points, 7 rebounds and 5 steals, junior guard Kellie Crouch added 10 points, sophomore forward Kim Evans had 10 points and 10 rebounds, and junior guard Tina Lebron hit a huge 3-pointer and took a crucial charge in the fourth quarter to bring it home.
"That was a tremendous comeback from our kids,'' Lancers coach Dawn Karpell said. "I think we talked about last year being here. The first half we shot like 20-something percent. We were firing the ball up, and we weren't taking our time, and (we made) two really huge adjustments defensively and the kids just bought in. We started to play more of our style of ball - getting into them, guarding, defending, we kept them off the glass and once we were able to get them moving up and down, we were able to wear them down."
"It's so exciting for all of us because we've never won anything,'' Campbell said. "We've been hashtagging 'unfinished business,' so it feels great to actually make it happen. We had a fire under us."
The Lancers (25-3) advance to the upcoming Tournament of Champions, which will be seeded after Sunday's public Group finals. They did it by rallying back from a 33-19 halftime deficit after shooting 8-for-29 from the field in the first half. IHA guard Caitlin Roche came out firing, scoring 12 of her team-high 14 points in the first quarter and burying three 3-pointers before Campbell, a DePaul recruit, switched on to her and shut her down for the remainder of the game.
"She was begging me in the first quarter,'' Karpell said. "She wanted to move over to Roche, and I was like, just wait, because she's had a little ankle thing going. She pretty much told me, 'I'm going to guard her.' We decided to face guard her. Kelly was a beast. She just was not going to let us lose that game. Every loose ball, she owned, and that's Kelly in a nutshell."
A fired-up Karpell laid into her team at halftime, reminding them that they were playing just like they did last year when they came up short against the Blue Eagles (27-2).
"We just talked about who wanted it more,'' Lebron said. "Our first three years we haven't won anything except our division. In school history, we've won 16 state championships, but this was our first, and this was definitely the most important to us because last year we lost to them by two, and this year we came back and we wanted revenge."
"Compared to the RBC (state playoff) game at halftime, (Karpell) kicked a garbage can over, so this was really nothing,'' Campbell joked.
The Lancers took it up a notch to start the second half, forcing three turnovers on IHA's first four possessions and going on a 7-0 run keyed by a pair of buckets by Campbell to trim the lead to 33-26 with 6:02 left in the period. Karpell's goal was to get the lead down to eight going into the fourth quarter, and the Lancers surpassed that, cutting it to 37-31. St. John Vianney also picked it up in the rebounding department, led by Evans, to prevent second-shot opportunities for IHA, while also limiting them to 4-for-18 shooting in the second half.
"Last year that's where they beat us the most - off second shots - so we knew that if we took that away, it would give us the advantage,'' Evans said.
The Blue Eagles' lead was at eight points after a free throw by Alexandria Mesropyan with 4:17 left in the game before the Lancers went on a decisive 13-0 run to complete the comeback. A reverse lay-up by Campbell cut the lead to two points before Lebron gave the Lancers their first lead of the game when she buried a 3-pointer from the wing off a skip pass out of a double team by Campbell to make it 44-43 with 2:17 remaining.
"It just felt perfect when I let it go - one of the smoothest shots I've ever taken,'' Lebron said. "I'm happy I was able to lift my team like that."
"Right when she spotted up, I knew it was going in,'' Evans said. "That just set off something that allowed us to finish it."
After the teams traded turnovers, IHA had a chance to retake the lead, but Lebron took a crucial charge in the paint on forward Megan Swords that gave the Lancers the ball back with the lead and 1:41 left in the game.
"I've been begging these kids all year and I've been screaming at them because we're really not good at that,'' Karpell said. "I told them that championship teams take charges. They just reminded me in the locker room that now they're a championship team and took a charge. That was a huge play."
"The whole season coach is begging us to take a charge, and every game we come so close, and we can never do it,'' Lebron said. "In the big game we were able to step in and take the charge and that definitely boosted our confidence."
Campbell then hit a free throw to extend the lead to three before a missed 3-pointer by Roche and a rebound by Campbell led to two more foul shots and a 48-43 lead with 38 seconds to go. However, a 3-pointer by IHA's Jordan Wilmoth (13 points) made it a one-possession game again. A free throw by St. John Vianney's Zoe Pero made it 49-46, and the Lancers came up with one final stop when Mesropyan missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer with three seconds left, leading to one more free throw by Campbell for the final margin to touch off the celebration.
This group of Lancers has two Non-Public South A titles under its belt along with multiple division titles, but winning the big one puts them up there with some of the great teams of the past.
"Everybody talks about our success, but this is their first state championship,'' Karpell said. "As they just reminded me, this is their first time winning anything. I think as a group they were really focused."
St. John Vianney 50, Immaculate Heart Academy 46
St. John Vianney (50): Dobrzynski 2 1-2 5, Crouch 4 0-0 10, Evans 3 4-10 10, Campbell 3 6-8 12, Caponegro 1 0-0 2, Pero 0 1-2 1, Lebron 2 0-0 5, Furch 0 0-0 0, Pinho 1 2-2 5. Totals: 16 14-24 50.
Immaculate Heart (46): Olear 1 2-2 4, Wilmoth 4 3-4 13, Oge 0 0-0 0, Roche 5 1-2 14, Dury 0 0-0 0, Swords 1 4-6 6, Seelman 0 0-0 0, McKiernan 1 0-0 2, Mesropyan 2 1-2 7. Totals: 14 11-16 46.
SJ Vianney (25-3) 11 8 12 19 - 50
Immaculate Heart (27-2) 20 13 4 9 - 43
Three-pointers: (S) Crouch 2, Lebron, Pinho; (I) Roche 3, Wilmoth 2, Mesropyan 2. Fouled out: None.