COLTS NECK - For all of her career-high 22 points, all of the defensive tenacity, grit under the boards and slick ball movement, it was the subtle flash of a smile on a rare misfire by Cara Volpe with the outcome hanging in the balance that revealed what makes the Colts Neck senior such an influential force for the Cougars.

Colts Neck was reeling. The 12-point lead it constructed early in the fourth quarter crumbled amid a frenzied Middletown South rally. At the foul line with her team looking for a stabilizer in the waning seconds of a suddenly tied contest, Volpe instilled composure in a manner synonymous with a leader.

The grin, following a miss on the first of two critical free throws, signaled no need to fret. Have faith in the fundamentals that are at the essence of Colts Neck and trust they would see the Cougars through.

“Flush it, I got the second one,” Volpe said of her facial message to the rest of the Colts Neck cast. “I’ll knock it down, we’ll be up and then we have to go hard on defense.”

Her subsequent action re-enforced the point. The southpaw hit nothing but net with the second attempt to snap the deadlock and third-seeded Colts Neck followed her guidance, locking down sixth-seeded Middletown South in the closing seconds to avert collapse and stave off the Eagles, 49-44, on Thursday night in the quarterfinals on the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 4 tournament.

Volpe’s foul shot broke a 44-44 tie with 35.8 seconds left and the Cougars went 5 of 8 from the stripe over the final increments to advance to the semifinals on Saturday at second-seeded Montgomery, which topped 10th-seeded Trenton, 66-47.

Colts Neck (20-7), which has put together its first 20-win campaign since it went 25-4 and won the sectional title in 2010, was on the verge of putting the game out of reach at the outset of the fourth quarter. A free throw by junior forward Eva Gibson staked the Cougars to their largest advantage, 37-25, with 6:45 to play.

However, Middletown South (12-13) embarked on a spirited comeback. Sophomore swing Kayla Richardson and junior forward Eve Pirie each accounted for five points and junior point guard Isla Brennan netted four as part of a 19-7 uprising that got the Eagles even at 44-44. Pirie stamped the resurgence with a foul shot with 48.3 seconds to go, a point that proved to be the last South would score.

“We still have yet to find an offensive identity,” said Middletown South coach Tom Brennan. “But, we did find a passion identity. I’m kind of at a loss for words, but I’m not at a loss for the pride I have in this team.”

As valiant as Middletown South was in climbing back into the game, Volpe played a big part in putting it in a desperate comeback mode. She shot 9 of 13 from the floor and went 3 for 5 at the foul line, adding to her haul of seven rebounds, four steals, two assists and a blocked shot.

“It’s my senior year so I’m not going to accept losing,” Volpe said. “When they came back, I was nervous. I told everyone we have to step it up and this is our game.”

Colts Neck had a slight edge on the glass (29-27), overcame 18 turnovers and found answers against Middletown South’s range of defenses that included a 2-3 zone and an early box-and-one on sophomore guard Camryn Foltz.

“I was glad they weren’t in a triangle and two,” said Volpe, who took advantage of some liberties to deposit 12 points in the first half when Colts Neck gained a 21-19 lead. “With the box and one, I was like, okay, they’re concentrating on Cam and I’m going to make them pay. Everyone has the heart to win.”

The heart was revealed in various forms. Foltz overcame the added attention to supply nine points, four rebounds and two assists. Senior forward Lauren Feaster was her usual competitive self under the boards, clearing six rebounds that were matched by her season-high six points and Gibson offered additional help inside by grabbing six caroms.

Pirie topped Middletown South with 12 points and nine rebounds, Richardson ended with nine points and Brennan provided six points – all in the second half – as well as five rebounds, two assists, a pair of steals and a block.

Middletown South (12-13)     14           05           06           19 --- 44
Colts Neck (20-7)                  11           10           11           17 --- 49

Middletown South: Isla Brennan 1-1-1-6; Kayla Richardson 4-0-1-9; Gabby Cook 3-0-0-6; Emily McCarthy 1-0-0-2; Eve Pirie 5-0-2-12; Stephanie Mayerhofer 0-1-1-4; Grace Meehan 0-1-2-5. Totals: 14-3-7---44.

Colts Neck: Camryn Foltz 1-1-4-9; Lauren Feaster 3-0-0-6; Amy McGee 0-1-0-3; Eva Gibson 2-0-2-6; Jess Thesing 0-0-0-0; Teresa Marsh 0-0-1-1; Catherine Gibson 0-0-2-2; Cara Volpe 8-1-3-22. Totals: 14-3-12---49.