CHATHAM, NJ - After they thoroughly dominated No. 14-seeded Cliffside Park in the first round of the 2010 NJSIAA North II, Group II Girls Basketball Tournament, the Chatham Lady Cougars were certainly ready for a more formidable challenge from the visiting Mountain Lakes Lakers in Thursday's quarterfinal contest. As the crowd filed into the gymnasium at Chatham High School, anticipating a tight, tough match-up between two talented teams, the Cougars approached their pre-game stretching and shooting warm-ups with a seriousness that spoke to just how important this game was to all involved.
The Cougars jumped out to an early lead in the first quarter thanks in part to a strong effort from forward/center Caroline Murphy. The tall red-head showcased her on-court talents as she recorded four assists, two steals and dropped in four of her game-high 13 points in the opening period. The Cougars were clearly inspired by Murphy's effort and it showed as Chatham held a 10-point lead at the end of the first quarter, 15-5.
The second quarter saw the Lakers begin to find a small comfort zone on the court with the Cougars. Once Mountain Lakes began to get a rhythm on offense, they loosened up and began to play tighter defense and also started to attack the hoop with better moves.
Katie Reese began to slowly pull her Mountain Lakes teammates together with some stellar defensive work midway through the second quarter. Reese - who led the Lakers with a team-high 11 points - turned in a nice sequence when she forced a Chatham turnover, collected a steal and finished with a transition lay-up at the other end to pull the Lakers to within seven points of the lead.
After two more Cougars' turnovers, Reese's teammate, guard Amanda Faulkenberg, knocked down two free throws to cut Chatham's lead to five points. The Cougars would push the lead back up to seven points when Murphy blocked a shot, collected the loose ball and found a streaking Kelsey Davies for an uncontested lay-up just before the half.
Though the Cougars were up 21-14 when they entered the locker room at the end of the second quarter, Chatham head coach Joe Gaba was acutely aware of his team's turnover problems though he and his coaching staff decided not to dwell on each miscue, choosing instead to meet his team's ball-handling mistakes with positive reinforcement. "You just have to keep plugging through [the turnovers]," Gaba said. We remind [the players] that it's a turnover and you have to move past it and look forward to the next possession."
Once the second half got underway, Mountain Lakes employed a full-court press as well as a trapping defense that attempted to double-team a wayward Cougar if she got near the sideline. Gaba's team had a fair amount of success against this defense as the Cougars broke the Lakers' pressure and opened up a nine-point lead by the end of the third period, 30-21.
It was obvious to those watching the game that Gaba had spent a whole lot of practice time going over the various possible situations the Lakers' pressure could create. Because of this extra preparation, Chatham looked at ease for most of the second half when Mountain Lakes was trying to force the Cougars into making a mistake or two that would allow them to get back into the game.
"Oh, absolutely [we prepared for the press]. We did a lot of work in practice on beating the press. I was just a little disappointed that once we actually beat the press, that's when we tried to do a little too much with the ball," Gaba said.
Despite an inspired effort by the Lakers in the fourth quarter, the Cougars were ultimately the better and more poised team down the stretch. Murphy continued to assert her dominance inside and let her presence be known on the interior as she played solid defense and made five big free throws in crunch time. It seemed as if each time Mountain Lakes made a shot or forced a big turnover, the Cougars would answer on the very next possession.
Chatham did not allow the Lakers to get any closer than eight points in the final frame and when the final buzzer sounded, Chatham celebrated an 11-point victory. As the ecstatic Cougars exited the court, their faces lit up with smiles, Gaba took time to reflect on what was an impressive victory over a quality opponent, one in which his team led wire-to-wire. "It's a huge win," Gaba said outside the Cougars' locker room after the game. "Any time you can beat a team like Mountain Lakes [it's big]. There is a great rivalry between the two schools dating back to when we were in the same conference. To get any win in the state tournament is great, but to get one to advance [your team] to the section semifinal is great. To do it against a rival and a quality program like Mountain Lakes is just a great experience for us."
The victory raised Chatham's record to a stellar 23-5 mark on the season. Gaba and his team will now face the No. 7-seeded Newark Tech Terriers at Chatham High School on Saturday, March 6th in the sectional semifinal match-up because Newark Tech upset No. 2-seeded Rutherford on Thursday night by a score of 22-18. The start time for Saturday's game has yet to be announced.