FLORHAM PARK, NJ – The experience factor and their status as the top-seeded team favored the Chatham Lady Cougars in the Morris County finals tournament for the past three years. The first two years, they lost.
Seniors Amanda Berntsen, Lauren Winschuh, Sam Kennedy and the rest of the upperclassmen did not want to relive the pain of losing in the county finals two years in a row. But on Friday night that's just what happened: the favored Chatham Lady Cougars had no answer for the third-seeded Jefferson and were again defeated 57-40 in the MCT finals.
“We had a tough time dealing with their (Jefferson’s) size. I said to the kids inside, ‘I’ll take responsibility for this loss,’” Chatham Head Coach Joe Gaba said. “I kind of let this one slip away. They were the better team today."
That last point is certainly not arguable as Chatham had only a slight lead through a good portion of the first quarter, but could not regain the advantage after Jefferson led 12-11 at the end of the first eight minutes of play.
Grace Conroy led Chatham with five points in the first and Berntsen, who finished with a total of 15 points, added four in the opening frame.
Jefferson built a ten point lead in the second quarter after center Sammy Lapszynski, who had a game high of 28 points, converted on one of her many layups from inside, but then Chatham went on a 7-0 run at the end of the second to draw within one at halftime.
Junior guard Kendall Davies hit a three, Winschuh scored from underneath and Conroy scored in transition after a nice pass from Berntsen during that stretch when Chatham trailed 25-24.
Unfortunately for Chatham, they were unable to carry that momentum into the third quarter. They scored only six points in the first period after halftime with Berntsen leading the way with four and Winschuh adding a bucket.
“We could have executed a little better in the half-court offense,” Gaba commented after the game. “As much as we prepared for their defense, we just didn’t react well to it."
Lapszynski also began to wear the Chatham defense down in the second half. She scored ten points in the third quarter alone as Winschuh, who was on her most of the night, just could not deal with her strength and shooting presence.
Chatham trailed 40-30 heading into the final quarter of play in their most important game of the season thus far.
“This is only the second time all year we’ve given up more than 50 points. That’s usually something that we don’t do. We could have done a much better job on the defensive end of the floor,” Gaba said.
The beginning of the fourth quarter saw Chatham attempt to get back in the game with some long range shooting. Berntsen and Kennedy each hit a three ball as they were down 42-36 with 6:35 remaining.
After that, Jefferson all but put the game away with an 11-0 run. Chatham could not buy a bucket during that stretch as they missed nine attempts in a row and found themselves down by 17 before time winded down on their tournament championship dreams.
“It’s definitely a disappointing loss. To work hard to get here all year and just let it slip the way it did, but I think they’ll (his team) look back at it and see some of the great things that they accomplished,” Gaba said.
Chatham’s county title hopes have disappeared, but the team has drawn the one seed in the NJSIAA North 2 Group 3 sectional tournament. They will play host to the 16th-seeded in Newark East Side on Monday, Feb. 27 at 5 p.m.