TCA senior Giana Hernandez-Boulden preps for a shot during the Mercer County Tournament against Stuart Day School. Rich Hundley photo
TCA senior Giana Hernandez-Boulden preps for a shot during the Mercer County Tournament against Stuart Day School. Rich Hundley photo
In athletics, nothing is ever a given.

But the Trenton Catholic Academy girls basketball team winning the Mercer County Tournament is about as close to “given” as you can get these days.

For the third straight year and the eighth time in the last 11 years, the top-seeded Iron Mikes laid claims to the MCT title by taking a 60-43 victory over 2nd-seeded Stuart Day School in the Feb. 28 finals at Cure Insurance Arena in Trenton.

“This means everything,” senior Giana Hernandez-Boulden said. “We worked really hard.”

Photo Gallery: TCA girls win Mercer County Tournament title

It was the 20th straight victory for Hamilton-based TCA (25-1), which is ranked second in New Jersey and 15th in the nation. The Iron Mikes blew through their first three opponents, winning by an average of 53 points per game.

They finally met a formidable foe in Stuart, which recently won its third straight NJISAA Prep B title and carried a 21-6 record into play. The Tartans hung tough for the game’s first 13 minutes before a 6-0 run to end the half gave the Mikes a 27-14 advantage.

Stuart battled back in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 36-29, but TCA ended the period with 11 straight points to open an insurmountable 18-point advantage.

“Stuart’s a very good team, one of the best teams we faced,” said coach Bob Fusik, whose team’s lone loss is to Maryland’s Bishop McNamara. “We knew Stuart would throw everything at us. They did a great job.”

Senior forward Ciara Bailey, who is headed for Towson University next year, won Most Valuable Player honors after carrying TCA offensively in the first half. With the team’s other big scorers stymied, Bailey scored 11 of her team’s 12 points in the first quarter and had all 15 of her points over the first three quarters when the outcome was still in doubt.  She also grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds.

“We were able to talk and get the ball around, and I was open so they passed it to me,” Bailey said. “It was good teamwork, and I made the shots. [Winning the MVP] is good,  but I couldn’t do it without my team. We all worked together and we got it.”

With Hernandez-Boulden, who is headed for West Virginia University, and Maniya Custis, who is ticketed for Central Florida, limited to a total of nine points, it was up to someone to step up, and Bailey took on the role.

“It’s probably one of her best games all year,” Fusik said. “She’s been a leader all year, but this was by far her best game.”

Bailey got help from TCA’s dynamic freshman duo of Zoe Brooks and Aaylah Del Rosario. Brooks had 16 points, 6 steals and 5 rebounds, while Del Rosario added 9 points and 11 rebounds.

“We have some of the top freshmen in the state,” Hernandez-Boulden said. “I think we’ll continue to grow with them.”

 Junior Jasmin Boyd chipped in with 8 rebounds, while Custis added 6 assists.

“We have a lot of leaders,” Hernandez-Boulden said. “It’s usually our seniors. We bring great energy, and it goes off to the rest of the team. “

Much of that energy is at the defensive end, which is where TCA thrives.

“We started to talk more, and after we played better defense, our offense came, too,” Hernandez-Boulden said. “Defense is honestly how we win games. We love it, defense is our pride.”

So is winning titles.

“This is very exciting,” Bailey said. “Now we’re ready for states. That’s the next chapter.”

“This really means a lot for our kids,” Fusik said. “This is what they want to play in to show where they are in Mercer County. Now we move on. Hopefully we’ll be in the TOC [Tournament of Champions].”

That journey begins March 5 in the NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public B tournament quarterfinals, where TCA will play the winner of Our Lady of Mercy and Holy Cross Prep.

Hernandez-Boulden is making no predictions, despite TCA’s torrid winning streak.

“We’re very excited,” she said. “We just have to keep working very hard. Just one game a time.”