TOMS RIVER - When the St. Rose girls basketball players say they trust anyone on the court to hit a big shot, that is not just lip service.

With the seconds ticking away in the biggest game in program history, the Purple Roses ran a play for a freshman reserve guard who had taken only two shots in the entire game, while using senior star Jess Louro as a screener. Coach Joe Whalen was rewarded with one of the more clutch shots ever by a St. Rose player when freshman guard Makayla Markham didn't hesitate and buried a 23-foot, go-ahead 3-pointer with just 48 seconds remaining against third-seeded St. John Vianney in Thursday night's NJSIAA Tournament of Champions semifinals.

Louro and her younger sister, sophomore Jen Louro, took it from there, icing a thrilling 47-43 comeback win at Pine Belt Arena with a combined three free throws in the final 20 seconds to send the second-seeded Purple Roses (32-1) to their first TOC final in history. They will play the rubber match against top-seeded Manasquan at 6:30 p.m. on Monday at Sun National Bank Center in Trenton after beating the Warriors during the regular season and losing to them in the Shore Conference Tournament final.

"Jess got me really open with the screen, so I guess it was more confidence in Jess than me to get me open,'' Markham said humbly about her big shot. "It means that my teammates believe in me, and I believe in them. I knew that if anyone else was taking the shot, they would've made it, too."

Sophomore Jen Louro and St. Rose reached their first Tournament of Champions final. (Photo by Ray Richardson)
Sophomore Jen Louro and St. Rose reached their first Tournament of Champions final. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

That play is usually designed for senior standout Kat Phipps, but she had fouled out with 5:08 left in the game, putting Markham in the spotlight.

"Absolutely nothing bothers her,'' Whalen said. "She's a freshman, and we've said that sometimes they don't know any better. She's a great shooter."

"We wouldn't give her the shot if we didn't have confidence,'' freshman forward Elizabeth Marsicano said. "I'm so happy she made it, and I knew she would."

Jess Louro then came up with a steal on St. John Vianney's ensuing possession, leading to a 1-and-1 for Markham, who missed the front end, but St. Rose retained possession when the Lancers couldn't secure the rebound and lost it out of bounds. That led to two free throws by Louro for a 46-43 lead with 20 seconds left. The Lancers then came down and did not attempt a 3-pointer, trying to get a quick two but failing to convert as time ticked away. Once St. Rose secured the rebound, Jen Louro clinched the win by making one of two free throws for a four-point lead with four seconds remaining.

Jess Louro helped St. Rose stay in the game to pull out the comeback by scoring a game-high 17 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out 6 assists. Marsicano added eight points and eight rebounds in the win, and Phipps chipped in with eight points. Junior point guard Kelly Campbell led St. John Vianney (26-4) with 12 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds, and forward Gigi Caponegro added nine points and eight rebounds.

"It's one of the greatest feelings ever,'' Louro said. "We've never made it to the Tournament of Champions finals, so I'm really happy."

The Purple Roses persevered despite committing 24 turnovers, shooting 5-for-24 from the field in the second half, and having one of their top players foul out with five minutes still left in the game.

"We started the game off a little frazzled, but we got back into it and settled into it more in the second half,'' Louro said. "It just shows how hard-working we are and how badly we want to win."

The Lancers had the lead up to five points after junior guard Kellie Crouch nailed a 3-pointer from the wing for a 40-35 advantage with 4:23 remaining, but the Purple Roses slowly chipped away. St. John Vianney had a chance to extend its lead on multiple occasions but went 3-for-8 from the foul line in the final 3:45 as part of a 9-for-18 showing at the charity stripe in the game.

"We knew we didn't want to foul, but we knew it wouldn't be that drastic if we did,'' Jess Louro said.

After Lancers' center Kim Evans made one of two free throws for a 41-37 lead, Louro hit a huge 3-pointer of her own with 3:26 remaining to trim the lead back to a point. Caponegro and Campbell then combined to go 2-for-4 on free throws to nudge the lead to 43-40 after a missed shot and a turnover by St. Rose. Louro then made one of two free throws to cut it to a two-point lead with 1:06 remaining.

St. John Vianney raced down the floor after Louro missed her second free throw, but a turnover by the Lancers in transition gave the Purple Roses life with under a minute remaining. Whalen called the play as Louro brought the ball up, and she made a hand-off to Markham on the right wing before running interference between two defenders. Markham then confidently launched her 3-pointer to give St. Rose the lead for good.

"We knew she was ready for that shot,'' Louro said.

The game was tight throughout, as the teams were tied at 25 at halftime. Marsicano did a solid job underneath on Evans, who has been a double-double threat throughout the state tournament but was held to five points on 2-for-8 shooting with seven rebounds.

"I just knew I had to front her because once she gets the ball in deep it's over,'' Marsicano said. "I just had to front her and be strong."

Jen Louro and Markham hounded Campbell, a DePaul recruit and the Lancers' top scorer, who was 3-for-10 from the field in the game. A defensive stopper herself, Campbell blanketed Phipps, a St. Francis (N.Y.) recruit who battled foul trouble all night in being held under double digits.

"I was trying to keep (Campbell) out of the lane, especially keep her on the perimeter, and when she passed it, don't let her get it back,'' Markham said.

St. Rose held the Lancers, who shot 16-for-50 (32 percent) from the field, to four points in the third quarter to edge out to a 33-29 lead going into the final period. St. John Vianney scored four straight points to start the fourth quarter and tie it at 33, setting the stage for the exciting finish. While it was a tough ending for the Lancers, the silver lining is that they return every single player because they have no seniors, and they bring back the talented Emily Uribe, a junior who missed this season with a torn ACL.

As for the Purple Roses, they now get an eagerly-awaited rematch with Manasquan in a bid to win their first TOC title.

"When we saw (Manasquan) win (the first semifinal), that was definitely motivation,'' Louro said. "We're just really excited for Monday."

Box score

St. Rose 47, St. John Vianney 43

St. John Vianney (43): Dobrzynski 0 1-2 1, Crouch 2 0-0 5, Evans 2 1-6 5, Campbell 3 6-8 12, Caponegro 4 1-2 9, Pero 3 0-0 6, Lebron 2 0-0 5, Pinho 0 0-0 0. Totals: 16 9-18 43.

St. Rose (47): Jess Louro 4 7-8 17, Stoll 0 2-2 2, Marsicano 4 0-0 8, Jen Louro 2 2-4 6, Phipps 3 1-1 8, Coakley 0 0-0 0, Markham 2 0-1 6. Totals: 15 12-16 47.

SJ Vianney (26-4)   14  11  4  14 - 43

St. Rose      (32-1)   10  15  8  14 - 47

Three-pointers: (SJV) Crouch, Lebron; (SR) Jess Louro 2, Markham 2, Phipps. Fouled out: (SR) Phipps.

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