PISCATAWAY, NJ -- The Franklin girls basketball team can now stake a legitimate claim to being perhaps the greatest in the history of New Jersey.
On a day when a stellar opponent prevented them from playing their very best game, the top-seeded, undefeated Warriors still found a way to grind out a 65-57 victory over second-seeded Saddle River Day School in the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions final before more than 5,000 at the Rutgers Athletic Center Sunday afternoon.
It was Franklin’s 34th victory in a row and its second T of C title in the last three seasons. The Warriors have not lost a game since falling to Manasquan in last year’s T of C final in Trenton. No undefeated girls basketball team has ever won 34 games in a season before Franklin.
Senior 6-foot-1 All-American Diamond Miller finished with 25 points, 18 rebounds, seven assists and five blocks for Franklin. Miller, a University of Maryland commit, hit only 5 of 21 field goal attempts, but was 13-for-16 from the foul line. Miller’s father, Lance Miller, played in New Jersey’s very first boys basketball Tournament of Champions for Bridgewater West High School in 1989 before he starred at Villanova University.
Kennady Schenck finished with 14 points and six rebounds, Keona Schenck had 11 points and seven rebounds and Tiana Jackson totaled 10 points and six rebounds for Franklin, which had defeated Saddle River Day, 59-53, in a regular-season game on Jan. 5.
Miller scored 10 of her points in the fourth quarter, when Franklin pulled away from a 39-38 lead after three quarters. The two teams were so evenly matched that they each did stellar work taking away many of the things the other team most wanted to do. As a result, neither team ever put together any kind of long, sustained run in a game that was impressive more for its grit and intensity than it was for its aesthetic beauty.
With Franklin leading, 44-42, freshman forward Christina Midgette ignited a 7-0 run for Franklin with a layup and a foul shot that completed a 3-point play with 5:00 left. Kennady Schenck buried a 3-point basket from the left wing with 4:32 left, and Miller hit the front end of a one-and-one with 3:25 showing to give Franklin a 51-42 lead.
“Kennady proved in her freshman year that she had ice in her veins,” Franklin head coach Audrey Taylor said. Now a junior, Kennady Schenck had hit the game-winning buzzer-beater two years ago when Franklin defeated Manasquan in that T of C final.
After missing her first 10 shots of the game, Miller finally hit her last two before halftime. Her driving layup with 1:11 left in the second quarter was her first basket. Her second field goal brought the RAC to its feet, as she pulled up just before the first-half buzzer and swished a 44-footer from near the left sideline to tie the score, 26-26.
"That was definitely a momentum swing,” Miller said of her halfcourt trey, “The coaches said that really helped us. It showed that even though they were scoring on us, that we really got this. Knowing it was a tie game, we went into halftime at 0-0, pretty much. We knew (that) we got it in the bag.”
(Miller had actually hit an identical shot from the identical spot on the floor to end the first quarter of Franklin’s Group 4 semifinal victory over Bloomfield 10 days earlier, but that one was ruled to have come just after the buzzer.)
Throughout the first half, though, Franklin struggled to do many of the things that had come with such ease for the Warriors in the games leading up to the T of C final. In addition to Miller’s shooting difficulties, Franklin was never able to apply its customary defensive pressure against Saddle River, which remarkably committed just one turnover in the entire opening half.
The other issue plaguing the Warriors in the first 16 minutes was their inability to keep Saddle River’s guards from getting to the basket off the dribble. Michelle Sidor--Bergen County’s all-time leading scorer--scored 14 of her game-high 27 points in the first half for the Rebels, and five of her seven baskets came on dribble penetration. Despite all of these issues, any of which might have put a lesser team into a deep hole, Franklin still managed to stay deadlocked with Saddle River by halftime.
The only other starter besides Miller who is a senior for Franklin is Jackson, the team’s slick and steady-handed point guard who opened the second half with a jumper from the wing for a 28-26 lead.
“That loss (to Manasquan in 2018) drove us to where we are today. That loss literally drive us. It fueled our entire season,” Jackson said. “Now I am able to say I have two T of C titles. (It) is honestly amazing. And in eighth grade, we went undefeated and won the state, too.”
Franklin head coach Audrey Taylor said, “We dealt with adversity that people couldn’t even see, but they stayed together and fought together and every team that was in front of them they treated like that was the best team in the state. This is one of the greatest teams I have ever seen, and I’m going to call it that.”
In an era increasingly dominated by Division 1 basketball recruits opting to attend private schools, Taylor spoke of the sense of community for which this Franklin team stands.
“I hope this motivates more (players) to stay in public schools and not to transfer,” Taylor said. “These girls are about their community, and their community stands behind them. They put Franklin on the map.”
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