TOMS RIVER – As players slowly filed out of the Manchester locker room, eyes red and emotions raw from the reality of finality setting in, a hearty fan base treated to the ride of a lifetime stood waiting, compelled to shower the Hawks with one last embrace. Hugs and applause the least they could do to properly convey their appreciation toward a special group so uplifting in need of a pick-me-up in return.

Sometimes, a loss can far better express the moral fiber of a team than in victory. Lopsided wins tend to illuminate talent, speed and execution. Heartbreaking losses often magnify character.

It had been quite some time since Manchester had experienced the latter, the past two months dominated by so much triumph. The Hawks bordered on invincible, running off 24 consecutive wins and a haul of titles along the path, most by wide margins. But, Thursday night, despite the endless resiliency expended to dig itself out of a formidable hole, third-seeded Manchester faced the music of an unfamiliar tone, beaten back each time it reached the precipice of completing epic comebacks in falling to second-seeded Saddle River Day, 76-63, in the semifinals of the Tournament of Champions at RWJBarnabas Health Arena.

The crowd of 2,471 consisted primarily of those who made the eight-mile ride down Rt. 571 to the campus of Toms River North, there to witness the final chapter in the tale of a program that soared to new heights. An unbeaten march to a B South title, followed up with its first Shore Conference Tournament crown and a Group 2 state championship, another first. Most of the victories secured in dominating fashion, a stark contrast to how the closing epilogue of a 32-3 season unfolded.

Leilani Correa of Manchester (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Leilani Correa of Manchester (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Saddle River Day (28-2) blitzed Manchester with a 10-0 start and built a 15-2 cushion less than three minutes into the affair. The unflappable Hawks reacted in their same, meticulous manner, narrowing the gap to 21-17 by the end of the first quarter and getting as close as 26-24 midway through the second. When the margin popped back to 10 in the third, Manchester whittled it to 38-36. And, staring down the barrel of a 56-41 deficit in the fourth, it responded once more, shrinking it to 60-54 with 4:19 left to play but running out of resources to get any closer.

“In the first half, we seemed unsettled and that was not us,” said Manchester coach Dave Beauchemin. “Our entire focus going into the second half was to play our tempo. I don’t care what it is, miss or make, we are never walking it up. We’re pushing the basketball. We made our run and the energy in this place was unbelievable. But, every time we made a run, they answered. They are so versatile. We cut it but we just could not overcome it.”

Electrifying guard Leilani Correa, who transferred to Manchester from Rutgers Prep for her senior year, led four players in double figures for the Hawks with 17 points, six rebounds and two blocks. Her season-long impact invaluable to an ascent among the state’s elite and her seamless integration into an established lineup treasured.

“We were relentless…we never gave up on anything,” said Correa, whose next stop is West Virginia. “We started off slow, they got ahead of us and that hurt in the long run. The support that we had as we made our comeback was amazing. It was a good run. All we did this year feels amazing, especially to experience it with these girls. They were so welcoming to me.”

Despite being saddle with foul trouble, 6-3 sophomore swing Destiny Adams contributed 14 points, five boards, three assists and two steals before exiting with her fifth personal in the waning seconds. Her senior sister Dakota added 11 points, six rebounds, three steals and two blocks and junior point guard Kemari Reynolds ended with 13 points, five boards, an assist and a steal.

“We went from nothing to something,” said Reynolds of Manchester’s rise. “The journey and legacy we created won't change. I learned a lot that I’ll use next year. Leilani always said to believe in yourself and Dakota was always there with support. They taught me to play with no fear and I’ll take that with me.”

Manchester’s ultimate undoing wasn’t just the slow start. Saddle River Day burned the Hawks on the glass with a decidedly 51-32 rebounding edge. The Rebels applied a particular sting on the offensive glass, producing 21 second-chance points.

Duke-bound senior Jaida Patrick was the primary enforcer, backing a game-high 24 points with 11 rebounds while senior Sydnei Caldwell added 13 points and dozen boards. Senior guard Michelle Sidor, committed to Michigan, deposited 16 of her 20 points in the first half.

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