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TOMS RIVER - Jackson Memorial couldn't have piloted a better take off, a combination of disruptive defense and efficient shooting at the root of an eight-minute exercise in near flawless basketball yielding a sizable lead that would only grow larger. Halfway through the flight, everything was running smooth, the cushion reaching altitudes maybe even the Jaguars themselves had not foreseen. 

The landing? Well, that was a bit more turbulent than anticipated, a gusty and gutsy comeback orchestrated by rival Toms River North never threatening to knock Jackson Memorial completely off its intended course yet a reminder that subtly easing off the stick is never a wise choice.

"Our first quarter was so good," noted Jaguar head coach Rachel Goodale. "We got the lead and I think we got a little too comfortable. That can't happen again."

Up by as many as 22 in the first half and still overseeing a 21-point advantage deep into the third quarter, a byproduct of its speed, tenacity and razor-sharp execution, No. 8 Jackson Memorial saw that margin wither away to a mere seven with just under a minute left to play. An undivided attention suddenly activated, the Jags leaned on the  unflappable stroke of senior guard Kristina Donza from the foul line to get them to their final destination, a 55-44 victory that re-enforced their status as the team to beat in the A South but with a reminder that nothing is to ever be assumded. 

Kristina Donza of Jackson Memorial (Photo by Gregg Lerner)
Kristina Donza of Jackson Memorial (Photo by Gregg Lerner)

The assertiveness at both ends of the court that drove Jackson Memorial (9-2, 7-0) to a 27-8 lead in the first quarter, pushed the distance between the two sides to 39-17 just before halftime and had the Jaguars seemingly in charge, up 45-24, in the closing minutes of the third. Yet, a 18-4 surge from Toms River North (7-3, 5-2), the defending division champion, narrowed the gap to 49-42 with 59.9 ticks left to play, a rally extinguished by Donza. She converted 6 of 6 at the stripe over the balance of the contest, the finishing touches on a 31-point, 11-rebound performance from the Navy-bound pledge.

"It definitely was very frustrating," Donza said of the precarious ending to what was masterful for the majority of the game. "We knew walking in they were going to be a very competitive team, especially after the first half. They were going to come out strong and we had to fight through it.

"It's a confidence thing, mainly knowing, if I get to the line, there's no doubt in my mind I'm going to knock them down. Having that adrenaline flowing the whole game, you're ready at any time to put the game away."

Jackson took significant strides to put the game away in the first quarter. Donza pumped in 14 points and junior guard Rachel Capua not only added 11 but showed the balance to her craft, adhesively defending on sophomore Sydney Howell while reserving the burst to score. She limited Howell (8.8 ppg., 14 3-pointers) to three points while generating 16 of her own, including 14 before the break.


"It's hard but I'm mentally prepare before the game," Capua said of her approach to handling the dual assignment of locking on a defensive responsibility but reserving the zest to be an offensive factor. "Knowing my scout and listening to Goody have me ready. You have to have a ton of energy from the get go."

"She is the best defensive player in this of the best I've ever had," praised Goodale of Capua's affinity for denying opponents their wants. "She is even better off the ball. I put her in a position to face guard where I didn’t want (Howell) to touch the ball and get hot. She reads and anticipates so well. She is fit and competitive. That was a huge reason we got that lead."

Rachel Capua of Jackson Memorial (Photo by Gregg Lerner)
Rachel Capua of Jackson Memorial (Photo by Gregg Lerner)

There was no shortage of zeal from the Jags over the first half. Jackson reaped 11 steals before the break - nine in the opening quarter - and parlayed them into multiple points off runouts. They also counted contributions beyond Donza and Capua. Senior guard Ally Vella cleared nine rebounds, senior point Bianca Giordano counted some fashionable feeds among her five assists and classmate Mackenzie Dackin hopped off the bench to fill the lanes, bagging four points in transition to go with three rebounds and two steals.


In the face of all that and an imposing deficit to climb out of, Toms River North did its best to make the Jaguars sweat out the victory. Sophomore forward Jackie Benvenuto sparked the Mariners' surge with a putback to end the third, part of her career-high 18 points that was accompanied by 13 rebounds.

Saddled with foul trouble, senior swing Kristina Johnson imposed her will in the fourth, delivering nine of her 15 points, including six during the burst that got the Mariners back into the affair.

Jackson Memorial (9-2, 7-0) 27 12 06 10 --- 55
Toms River North (7-3, 5-2) 08 11 07 18 --- 44

Jackson Memorial: Rachel Capua 5-1-3-16; Kristina Donza 8-2-9-31; Bianca Giordano 0-0-0-0; Ally Vella 1-0-2-4; Mackenzie Dackin 2-0-0-4; Amber Williams 0-0-0-0; Zoe Maffei 0-0-0-0; Brooke McKown 0-0-0-0.
Toms River North: Kristina Johnson 6-0-3-15; Paige Farley 0-0-2-2; Jackie Benvenuto 6-0-6-18; Sydney Howell 0-1-0-3; Gia Pissott 0-0-0-0; Julia Grodzicki 3-0-0-6.

Follow Gregg Lerner on Twitter @gregglerner. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.


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