All season long, the one thing the Chatham girls basketball team has been able to count on is its defense.
When Chatham takes the court for its 12 p.m. tip-off Sunday against Mainland (27-3) in the RJW Barnabas Health Arena in Toms River, the Lady Cougars can prove that "defense wins championships" by taking home the school's first-ever Group 3 state championship.
"Yes, that's the goal," Chatham coach Joe Gaba said. "This is the best defensive team I've taken to the group final by far."
This will be the fourth Chatham team Gaba is coaching in the group final and he has two members of the 2009 team - Lindsay Atchison and Julia Moorehead - as his assistant coaches.
"(Atchison's) groups were the best offensive teams I've taken down there, but this group is definitely a better defensive group."
In five state tournament wins over Belleville, Cranford, Irvington, Warren Hills and Pascack Valley, the Lady Cougars have held their opponents to an average of 33.4 points per game with their man-to-man defense. Mainland will pose Chatham's biggest challenge in more ways than one with 6-3 junior Kylee Watson as its top performer.
Watson, a coveted national recruit, is averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds a game. She'll match up with Chatham's 6-1 junior Shannon Donohoe.
Chatham's three-guard offense features senior point guard Michaela Ford, sophomore Tess Ford and junior Maddie Hartnett. The trio has combined to hit 77 percent (112) of the team's 145 3-pointers made this season.
Hartnett, who also has 43 steals, paces the team with 60 shots made from beyond the arc. Mainland has connected for 37 3-pointers this season.
Senior forward Olivia Mathern has been a clutch 3-point threat with 23 timely long-range shots for Chatham. Carly Frohnapfel, a 6-0 freshman, has been the top sub for Chatham.
"We're really excited," Michaela Ford said after Friday's practice. "It's a really a great opportunity to play in the final. We need to follow the scouting report coach Gaba gave us and stay focused on what we need to do and we'll have a good chance. We feel that the really tough games we've already played this season will help us."
The closeness and team chemistry of this current group has been a key to its success and Gaba figures that he'll emphasize having fun in his pre-game talk on Sunday.
"I'm going to remind them that they don't have to worry about creating their own energy because it will be there in a game like this," Gaba said. "If you're having fun, you're relaxed and you will play better.
"I always felt we were the best team in our conference, I thought we'd win the county (runner-up on a last-second shot). When we beat Old Tappan (50-41 on Dec. 16) at Old Tappan, I really thought we'd see them again for the trip to Toms River. They were upset in their section, but I always thought we'd be there."
LADY COUGAR NOTES: Assistant coach Lindsay Atchison played in the 2009 final for Chatham against Rumson with a mask protecting a broken nose. She had been punched in the nose during the state sectional semifinals and played the rest of the way with the mask.
"As a player, I can remember nothing about the game, except the atmosphere," Atchison said. "I want them to go out there and soak it all in and have fun. The way people are writing about this game, we're the underdogs so that takes some of the pressure off of us."
Atchison played with Moorehead (who was out with an ACL injury), Caroline Murphy, Annie Weichert, Jeanna Dunleavy, Amanda Berntsen, Sara Cox, Christin Campbell, Charlotte Cosgrove and Kelsey Davies. That team lost in the Group 2 final to Rumson ... Chatham also lost in 2010 final to Shabazz and in 2004 to Haddonfield.