TRENTON – The road to an NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title has been a long one for the St. John Vianney girls basketball seniors, littered with a number of tough losses along the way. If the journey to the top spot in N.J. lasted two overtimes longer than it was supposed to, the Lancers seniors were willing to go the extra distance.

That long journey ended Monday at the Sun National Bank Center in Trenton the way it always does for the greatest of girls teams at St. John Vianney High School: with a Tournament of Champions title.

The Lady Lancers recovered from a fourth-quarter Manasquan rally and multiple overtime deficits to beat the defending champion Warriors for the fourth time this year, 65-58 in double overtime, to capture a record seventh Tournament of Champions crown and first since 2009.

Monday’s double-overtime triumph caps a 31-1 season for St. John Vianney in which the Lancers went wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in the state. It also ended a relatively lengthy drought without any postseason titles. The Lancers won the Shore Conference Tournament title for the first time in 10 years by beating Manasquan on Feb. 27 and the seven years between T of C titles is the second-longest drought for Vianney – which ended a 10-year drought when it won the 2009 title.

SJV celebrates TOC Championship (photo Eric Braun)
St. John Vianney celebrates its seventh Tournament of Champions shampionship. (Photo by Eric Braun)

“These players have been here for three and four years and have been building towards this,” St. John Vianney coach Dawn Karpell said. “If you go back to earlier years, when they were younger, we were terrible in overtime. Before the game, our message was ‘We are so prepared for any situation that is going to arise.’

“Obviously, we didn’t want the situation to unfold that way, but mentally, we’ve been tested and there was no way we going to give it up that easily. That’s what shined through.”

Kelly Campbell led the senior effort Monday with 23 points, 11 rebounds and six assists to cap her standout four-year varsity career. The 6-foot point guard and DePaul University recruit buried 14 of her 18 free-throw attempts for the game and shot 13-for-16 in the fourth quarter and two overtime periods – including converting her final eight attempts to put the game on ice.

Fellow seniors Vanessa Pinho, Zoe Pero, Gigi Caponegro and Tina Lebron all added significant contributions along the way for St. John Vianney to secure the championship. Pinho scored 10 points to go with her defense against Manasquan junior guard Stella Clark, which included a key steal and layup to give the Warriors a 39-32 lead with 4:14 left to play.

Lebron, meanwhile, hit two first-half threes and capped the scoring with a free throw in the second overtime. Pero added eight points off the bench before fouling out – six of which came in the first half.

Caponegro scored only two points but they came on the biggest field goal of the game. The senior forward drilled an 18-footer seven seconds into overtime, which gave the Lancers the lead for good.

“The fact that Gigi stepped up and hit that huge jump shot gave us a lift because we got that scoring from somebody else on the floor,” Karpell said. “We didn’t give up the lead after that, so I think that she had the confidence to hit that shot was really important for the momentum.”

The Lancers appeared poised to put Manasquan away just as they did on Feb. 27 when they won 59-48 at Monmouth, but the Warriors – which did not play a senior on Monday night – came storming back after Pinho’s steal and layup extended the lead to seven midway through the fourth.

Freshman Faith Masonius led the Manasquan comeback by scoring 13 of her game-high 27 points in the final 3:50 of the fourth quarter. Nine of those points came on conventional three-point plays – including one that pulled Manasquan even at 43 with 1:33 left.

“She’s just a tough matchup athletically,” Karpell said of Masonius. “We put Kimi (Evans) on her early and she stepped out and hit a jumper. We switched Gigi on her and she used her size advantage. I think they did a good job of isolating her and our help wasn’t getting to her in time. She also finished every opportunity, so she did her part too.”

Pinho came back with two free throws with 1:13 remaining to give Vianney a two-point lead. Manasquan then turned the ball over on a five-second call out of a timeout and sophomore Julia Ramos knocked down the second of two free throws with 57 seconds left to make it 46-43.

Manasquan sophomore Dara Mabrey drove the lane for a layup that pulled the Warriors within a point and Campbell answered with two foul shots to stretch the lead back to 48-45 with 44 seconds left.

After working the clock down 20 seconds, sophomore Carly Geissler found Masonius for a lay-in that cut Vianney’s lead back to one with 16 seconds left. The Warriors caught a break on the other end when Campbell missed the first of two free throws before converting the second and giving the Lancers a 49-47 lead.

With her team’s season on the line, Masonius again delivered, securing the ball after Caponegro blocked a shot by Mabrey and putting it up for the tying score with 4.6 seconds left.

Campbell dribbled the ball from three-quarters court and put up a runner in the lane before the final buzzer sounded, but the shot hit the back rim and bounded away to send the game into overtime.

“We were a little shocked, but we know Manasquan’s a team that goes on big runs and inches their way back in so we weren’t too surprised, even though we didn’t want it to happen,” Campbell said. “We figured they would make a run.”

“I kept joking with my seniors that they just wanted to stay with me that much longer,” Karpell joked. “They just didn’t want to leave so that was, in fact, why it went to two overtimes.”

Masonius and Lancers junior Kimi Evans (11 points and six rebounds) traded baskets to open the overtime session and junior Addie Masonius found her younger sister for another lay-in that gave Manasquan a 53-51 lead. Evans hit one of two free throws on the other end and after a defensive stand, Campbell hit one of two to even the score at 53 with 1:27 left. The two teams played to a stalemate for the remainder of the period, with Campbell dribbling out most of the final 45 seconds before forcing up a shot to end the first overtime.

Caponegro’s jumper from the left wing represented the first two of five straight Lancers points to start the second overtime. The Warriors faced an uphill climb with Mabrey on the bench having fouled out in the first overtime period, but still managed to pull within 60-58 of Vianney on a three from the top of the key by Faith Masonius. Manasquan could not, however, get the ball back within one score thanks to Campbell’s eight straight makes from the line.

After staring down the possibility of another defeat while knowing this was the final game they would play together, St. John Vianney’s senior-dominated team pulled it together to win their championship.

“We knew we just had to complete the business that we started this season,” Pinho said. “Coming into this game, we said, ‘No matter if we have to go to overtime like we did or fourth quarters, we’re going to win this game. We had to play with our heart and guts and that’s exactly what we did and we came out on top.”

In addition to her 27 points, Masonius grabbed nine rebounds to lead the Warriors. Mabrey scored 10 points before fouling out and Clark poured in eight of her 13 before halftime while also handing out five assists and notching three steals. Addie Masonius and Geissler also finished with five assists each.

St. John Vianney took a 32-24 lead to the halftime locker room behind an balanced offensive effort, but Manasquan stayed within striking distance by turning the game into a defensive battle in the third – one that saw the Warriors outscore the Lancers 5-3.

“They were trapping and running all kinds of different things at us,” Karpell said. “We were trying to get the ball down low to Kimi, but we really weren’t getting good looks like we did in the first half. They did an excellent job in the third into the early fourth quarter before we obviously found enough to get us to overtime. Once we were in overtime, I thought we ran our offense a little better.”

The Warriors will return their entire rotation next season and also expect to get junior center Victoria Galvan back as a senior after the 6-foot-2 center missed this season with a torn ACL. Manasquan’s T of C championship game appearance was its third in a row and fourth in the last five years, two of which ended in championship victories.

“All year, we’ve said we’re not using our youth as an excuse to call this year a rebuilding year,” Manasquan coach Lisa Kukoda said. “I think that it sits with us the same. It hurts because we knew that we could have done some things better.

“It obviously gives us a lot to look forward to going into next year, but we’ve got to be ready because the expectations are going to be on us next year.”

Monday marked the second time the two Shore Conference Class A Central rivals went to overtime this season and the third time they played a game decided by a single-digit margin.

St. John Vianney has never won the T of C with an unbeaten record, so this year’s one-loss championship season will go down

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