CHATHAM, NJ - It's hard to believe that a four-point game was lost in the first quarter, but that was the way Chatham coach Joe Gaba saw his team's 55-51 loss to Rahway in the opening round of the NJSIAA girls basketball state tournament on Tuesday.
"We paid the price of giving up 22 points in the first quarter," Gaba said. "You can't give up 22 points, that's the bottom line. You can have poor shooting nights, but you can never have a bad defensive night."
During a timeout in the first quarter, Gaba pleaded with his team to play with some urgency, warning them that the end of the season was staring them in the face.
"I think for a state tournament game, I thought our lack of intensity in the first quarter was kind of atypical of teams that I normally coach," Gaba said. "They did show a lot of heart in that second half of trying to overcome that by putting in a lot of effort in to get it down to two points. That shows the kind of character those kids have."
Samirah Henderson finished with 21 points, six assists, five rebounds and two steals in sparking Rahway (15-11), which moved to a 22-9 lead in the first quarter and held a 30-20 advantage at the half.
Junior Veronica Kelly scored 14 of her game-high 22 points in the first half for Chatham (13-13) to keep the Lady Cougars in the game. Camryn Davies provided a sign of hope for Chatham with her 3-pointer from the top of the key that cut the deficit to 10.
In the third quarter, Veronica Kelly, a 6-1 forward, teamed up with her younger sister, Hannah, a freshman, combined to fuel a 13-7 surge that brought the Lady Cougars to within 37-33. Veronica Kelly scored six points and Hannah Kelly hit for five, including a 3-pointer, in that stretch. Michaela Ford's steal and drive to the basket for two points capped the burst for Chatham.
"We finally started playing with a sense of urgency in the second half," Gaba said.
Rahway built its lead back up to 44-33 heading into the fourth quarter, but the Lady Cougars were not done. Senior guard Liz Ford nailed two 3-pointers and Davies hit a basket and a 3-pointer to key a 14-5 run that was capped by Hannah Kelly's two foul shots, making it 49-47 Rahway with a minute to play.
The last gasp was Michaela Ford's driving basket that sliced it to 51-49 with 37 seconds left. But Henderson scored again with 11.2 ticks showing for a 53-49 lead that Chatham could not overcome.
The loss was the fifth straight for Chatham, all coming after junior guard Chloe Blanc was lost for the season with a knee injury just two days before the Morris County Tournament quarterfinals. The 13 wins represented the fewest in a season during the 20-year Gaba era, dating back to his 13-10 team in his first season.
"Chloe kind of did everything for us; she handled the ball, she defended, she was able to score and she was able to get to the basket," Gaba said. "Just trying to find that piece that would pattern those qualities was impossible."
Veronica Kelly scores two of her game-high 22 points for Chatham
Camryn Davies drains a 3-pointer for Chatham in the fourth quarter that cuts the deficit to five points