By Rich Fisher | Correspondent
Picking a star for the St. Rose girls’ basketball team after its 53-38 win over Immaculate Heart Academy in the NJSIAA Non-Public A championship game could be a tough task when six players scored between five and 11 points.
Suddenly, it becomes apparent.
The star of the team was THE TEAM.
All year, center Lucy Thomas and point guard Mikayla Markham carried the brunt of the scoring load, combining to average 27 points per game. At halftime, they had two points between them, and the Purple Roses were up 22-15. By game’s end, they combined for 11, and yet St. Rose won March 10 by 15 at the RWJ Barnabas Health Arena, Toms River.
With the win, St. Rose was seeded second in the Tournament of Champions and on March16 will play the winner of the March 14 Franklin-Old Tappan game in the semifinals at Barnabas Health Arena.
“This feels so good; it all paid off because we’ve worked together as a team,” said Thomas, who had nine points, seven rebounds, four assists and five steals. “Everyone on our team brings something to the table. We have the whole bench. We count on each other.”
“We have a really deep bench,” echoed Ariana Dalia, who led St. Rose with 11 points. “When one of them aren’t hitting shots, we have fresh people coming in and hitting shots. Lauren [Lithgow] is a shooter, Sam [Mikos] is a shooter.”
Mikos and Lithgow each finished with nine points, with Lithgow hitting three 3-pointers in the second half to help St. Rose (27-3) expand its lead. Thomas scored seven after intermission, while Mikos had seven in the first half to allow the Roses to take the lead. Elizabeth Marsciano added six, and Abigail Antognoli scored all five of hers in the fourth quarter.
Markham had just two points, but was still her usual force with six assists, six rebounds and three steals.
“I came out with a lot of nerves,” said the senior, who carried St. Rose to victory over Red Bank Catholic in the South Jersey championship game. “Obviously my teammates were there to pick me up and get us going offensively, and we just had to get into the flow of the game and stick to the game plan. Get the ball inside, share the ball and make shots.”
That was not happening at the outset as Immaculate Heart Academy (24-4) took an 8-2 lead. At that point, coaches Janine Roth and Raheem Carter called a timeout to make some adjustments. Whatever was said worked, as IHA committed turnovers on 10 of their next 12 possessions, and St. Rose held a 22-15 lead at halftime.
“We came out, we were high strung, we had to relax,” Carter said. “I guess the game just got to them, and being in this setting and so much at stake, we just had to calm them down. And then when we settled in, it’s very difficult to score on us when everyone’s locked in.”
The offense still needed tweaking, however, which was discussed during halftime.
“Coach (Carter) told them settle in, relax, play their game,” Roth said. “They had to take care of the ball, move the ball, make the adjustments coach talked about, and they were able to pull forward in the second half.”
The biggest adjustment was for St. Rose to stop settling for 3-pointers and work the ball inside to Thomas. Carter felt with the team shooting 8-for-24 in the first half and still up by seven, things could only get better from the perimeter, “because we work too hard on our shooting.”
But he did not want that to be all the Roses did. Thus, they isolated Thomas on the foul line and put their shooters in the corners, leaving Immaculate Heart to decide what to defend.
“We had to get Lucy established,” Carter said. “Lucy was just one-for-four [shooting] going into halftime, and we had to get her more touches. She opens everything else up for us inside. She’s a handful, she can shoot from the foul line, she can catch and drive, and that’s what she did. That opened everything else up.”
“We worked on staying composed and then we went to our two-guard front after halftime and went back to running our stuff,” Dalia said. “We had to make passes to get things open for our shooters.”
The strategy worked as Thomas scored five points in a 12-3 run to open the third quarter. That gave St. Rose a 34-18 advantage, and IHA never got the deficit under double figures from that point. With Thomas starting to score, the perimeter opened and St. Rose buried four 3-pointers.
The Roses defense got even tougher after intermission, as Immaculate Heart got just four baskets and finished the game shooting 9-for-33.
“I think that’s a testament to our defensive intensity,” Markham said. “At halftime, our coaches said we’re playing off them a little too much; we’re giving them a little too much space. In the second half, we wanted to come out and put a lot of pressure on them, maybe give them a look they haven’t seen and trap whenever we could.”
When the final horn sounded, St. Rose had its ninth state title, which is the third highest girls total in New Jersey history. In fact, the Belmar-based school is 9-1 in state finals.
It was the Roses’ first state title since winning Non-Public B in 2015 (it moved up to A this year) and their first Non-Public A crown since 2012. It was a great send-off for seniors Thomas, Markham, Dalia and Marsciano, who embraced it like they would a long-lost favorite relative.
“As a senior, it’s a culmination of a lot of hard work and dedication,” Markham said.
“We were looking for this since day one,” Dalia said. “From the first day of practice, this is where we wanted to be.”
They are there thanks to a team full of stars. As Carter noted, the starters got increasingly better because they practiced every day against standout players on the second team.
“In every game it can be someone different, and that’s how we prepare,” the sixth-year assistant said. “I said it before. When you have All-Staters going against All-Staters and all-world defensive players in practice, you can’t help but get better.”