UNION, NJ -- Pressure.
The Franklin girls basketball team's ability to handle it--thriving under the searing spotlight that goes with a 31-game winning streak--and the Warriors' aptitude for applying it to other teams with their withering, unrelenting fullcourt defense--have returned them to a third consecutive state championship game.
Franklin left yet another overmatched opponent in its wake Thursday night, seizing immediate control of the game from the opening tap and going on to a 66-22 victory over Bloomfield in the NJSIAA Group 4 state semifinal at Union High School.
Franklin will vie for its third straight Group 4 championship Sunday on the campus of Toms River North High School, opposing Lenape (28-3) at 4 p.m.
Senior McDonald's All-American Diamond Miller scored 12 of her 19 points in the first quarter, when the Warriors scored the last 23 points in a row for a 25-2 lead after one period. And there might be some dispute that it actually should have been 28-2 after a quarter, as Miller banked in a 40-foot shot from near halfcourt on a play the officials ruled happened just after the buzzer sounded.
No matter. The Warriors came out and scored the first six points of the third quarter for a 31-2 lead. Miller finished with eight rebounds, five assists and three blocks. Kennady Schenck scored all of her eight points in the first quarter. Christina Midgette finished with seven points and seven rebounds. Onoseta Ufuah scored eight points. And senior point guard Tiana Jackson totaled six points, six rebounds, nine assists and four steals, triggering both Franklin's zone press as well as its transition offense with passes that were both accurate and, at times, spectacular.
"The key to winning championships is actually defense," Jackson said. "It really is the truth. If you can stop teams from scoring and you can put points up you're going to win the games. Playing our strong defense helps drive our offense. The defense is gonna be the key to everything. It really is the foundation."
Bloomfield (19-8) missed all 10 of its shots and committed nine turnovers in the first quarter as Franklin applied its pressure and created opportunity after opportunity off its ravenous defensive performance.
"When you get a defensive stop, you really feel good about it," Jackson said. "It really does drive our offense. The ability to shut down good teams with our press has to be our favorite thing. We want to press because it gets our blood flowing, and we like that fast-paced game."
Miller liked this first quarter a lot more than she did Tuesday night's, when she was held to just one shot attempt in that opening quarter by Bayonne's double- and triple-teaming defense in Franklin's 70-38 victory in the Section 2, Group 4 final. Miller was able to roam free and get plenty of touches in Thursday's opening eight minutes, as the helter-skelter nature of the game left Bloomfield unable to set up its halfcourt defense.
"Once we get rolling like that, we feel unstoppable," said Miller, who sank five of eight shots in the first quarter--not counting the 40-foot banker that was waved off. "There were no triple-teams this time. It was a lot more fun."
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