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Hightstown - It was only the second time in Howell’s history that the girls basketball team made it to the Central Jersey Group IV final. This time the Rebels had the outcome they wanted, defeating the No. 1 seed Hightstown 48-25 to win their first NJSIAA sectional title.


Howell got off to the start they wanted, shutting out Hightstown in the first quarter 12-0. Freshman Kylee Beam got off to a fast start, scoring the Rebel’s first six points in the game. She finished with a double-double, 10 points and 10 rebounds. 


“I told her (Beam) from the beginning of the playoffs that freshman year is over,” Coach Joe Santopietro said. “I think she understood the message and clearly responded.”


Beam also had the task of covering Hightstown star player Abby Misier who averaged 24 points per game entering tonight. Beam combined with Kiera McKown, Bella Marino and Kendall Bleakley held Misier to 6 points in the game. 


“We really had to fight hard because they have tall girls,” Beam said. “We had to dig deep and push them out of the box and be strong. Ashley (Smith) did a really good job on top and we all worked together as a team on defense.”


Howell responded to every Hightstown run and it was a different player stepping up each time. Senior Gabby Carpenter scored 9 out of her team-high 14 points in the second quarter for the Rebels. Carpenter knocked down a 3-pointer to put Howell up 15-0 and then ended the Hightstown 4-0 run to put Howell up 17-4.


“She was crucial,” Santopietro said about Carpenter. “A lot of times the last couple games we got caught up shooting threes, today especially Gab ended up driving and she started to go back to pull-up jumper and those were the moments we talked about before the game.”


Misier was in foul trouble in the second half, picking up her 4th foul early in the 3rd quarter trailing 25-14. Howell would extend their lead 27-14, but could not take advantage with Miser on the bench. Hightstown was able to go on a 6-0 run to get within 7 points, but Howell responded after they called timeout. 


Sophomore Payton Smith, who knocked down a 3-pointer in the closing moments of the first half, knocked down her second 3-pointer to end the Hightstown run. Sophomore Veronica Nieves, who was Howell’s hero in the quarterfinal round with a career-high 17 points, knocked down a 3-pointer with a defender in her face at the buzzer to put Howell up 35-22 going into the final quarter.


Howell continued to apply the pressure on Hightstown, scoring four points in the first 25 seconds of the 4th quarter by creating turnovers and extending their lead to 17 points. The Rebels eventually grew their lead to 20 and knocked down five free-throws down the stretch to close the game out.


“Our defense is what gives us momentum on offense,” Ashley Smith said. “We turn defense into offense and that just comes from our aggressiveness and our hussle.”


The only other time Howell made it to a sectional final was in 2011 where they fell to the eventual Group IV champions,  Rancocas Valley 64-44. 


“This is pretty special,” Carpenter said. “At the beginning of the season we did not know what to expect, but we worked hard every practice and we are a defense focused team and it paid off. We have a deep bench and everyone contributes.”


Howell will face South Jersey Group IV winner Lenape on Tuesday at Monroe High School. Lenape, who was the No. 2 seed like Howell, defeated top seeded Williamstown 58-37.

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