By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
TOMS RIVER — Even trailing by 10 points midway through the fourth quarter, the Ocean City girls basketball players believed they had a little bit of magic left in their postseason run. They were right, as the Red Raiders frantically clawed their way back against Pascack Valley, shaving the Indians’ lead down to 44-43 on a bucket by senior point guard Grace Sacco with two minutes to go.
With 8.9 seconds left, Pascack Valley reserve guard Cerina Dunkel nailed a pair of free throws to give the Indians a little bit of breathing room and three-point lead. Ocean City had one last crack at it, and executed coach Paul Baruffi’s inbounds play perfectly. Sacco took the inbounds pass, dribbled up the court and dished off to fellow senior Alexis Paone. Paone’s three-point shot bounced off the back of the rim, however, and Pascack Valley held on to win the Group 3 state championship, 48-45, at Pine Belt Arena on the campus of Toms River North High School.
The loss was just the second of the season for the Red Raiders, who finished 30-2 and last week won their second straight South Jersey title before edging Ewing in the Group 3 semifinals.
“We were down 10 points at one point, but it’s a state final game, so we’re not going to give up. It doesn’t matter what the score is. Looking back on it, if we had a better first half things would have been different. But, we fought hard and I couldn’t be more proud of our team,” Sacco said. “It’s been an amazing four years. It was a great decision to come to Ocean City. Not only did we have a great basketball season, but I’ve met three of my best friends. Us seniors, we’ve been together for four years. Baruffi gave us a speech about how he’s going to miss us. After four years, it’s tough to let go. We’ll never play for him again, and we’ll never play together again, so that’s tough. But we had a great run, we just came up a little short.”
“She had an opportunity. That’s what we drew up,” Baruffi said of the final game. “We wanted Grace to draw the defense and kick it back to her. But they are a good team. They’re not just going to leave you alone. I was happy we were able to get a three off.”
Ocean City got off to a rough start, scoring just five points in the opening quarter, and trailed the Indians 18-12 at halftime. The Red Raiders also had to deal with some foul trouble, as senior center Rosalia Daddi picked up her third personal early in the second half. A 5-0 run by Paone, which included a 3-pointer and a steal and layup, cut Ocean City’s deficit to 22-20, but Pascack Valley answered with a three from Brianna Smith.
Smith was a thorn in Ocean City’s side all afternoon, leading the Indians with 16 points, including four 3-pointers.
“We just rushed everything (early on). That’s what I talked about at halftime. We weren’t shooting the ball, we were throwing it. We weren’t going up strong,” Baruffi said. “We were caught up in the moment of a big game, but once we settled in the second half, we shot the ball (better) and they started going in.”
The Red Raiders continued to chip away at the deficit, as Tori Rolls found Mickey Baker for a layup that made it 30-26, but the Indians had an answer for every Ocean City run. Smith nailed another three to push the lead to 33-26. Pascack Valley opened up a 40-30 lead on a bucket by Dunkel, but Ocean City went on an 11-2 run to pull to within 42-41. The run was classic Ocean City, featuring a three from Sacco, a pair of jumpers from Paone, a basket by Rolls in transition and a big offensive rebound from Baker.
The Indians took a 46-43 lead on a pair of free throws from Smith, but Sacco answered on the other end with a pair of her own to make it 46-45. That set up the frantic final eight seconds.
“That’s what they’ve done all year. I knew we wouldn’t quit. Once we got a couple baskets, I thought we got some momentum, but they hit some big threes,” Baruffi said. “I told them, I don’t know what (the seniors’) record is the past four years, but it’s pretty impressive. Grace has been awesome as a point guard, and I’m going to miss that, obviously. And the other three just give me everything they have. I’m proud of them.”
Sacco finished with 16 points in her final high school game, while Paone added 15 and fellow senior Sadie Ford chipped in with five points and nine rebounds. Baker, a junior, added seven points, eight rebounds and three assists.
“You never expect to have a record like we had. Our goals at the beginning of the season was to win the CAL championship and the South Jersey championship. We wanted to get more numbers up on the banners in our gym. We were successful, for the most part. Obviously, we’d like to have another state championship, but we had a great year,” Sacco said. “It’s a great experience just being here. It’s more fun to win, but we’re an experienced team and now the younger girls have been through that, too.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN