ROCKAWAY, NJ - The gym at Morris Knolls High School has not been kind to the Montville girls basketball team over the years.
The past decade has seen the squad evolve into one of the better programs in the county. But seemingly every year, it sees its hopes for its first-ever Morris County Tournament title come to an end in the quarterfinals, which are held yearly at Morris Knolls.
Not only does Montville run into high-quality opponents in this round, but the dimensions of the gym- with an unusual amount of space behind each basket- presents a challenge for a Montville squad that is so reliant on shots from the perimeter. The depth perception can be thrown off, which is a hard adjustment to make for any shooter.
In Saturday's MCT quarterfinals, top seed Montville not only had to deal with the mental hurdle of its experiences in this round, but it had to take on a tough conference opponent in eighth seed Morristown, who was well-versed and prepared for Montville's tendencies. Montville trailed for most of the first three quarters, before it started to get some shots to fall in the fourth quarter to pull away for a 47-34 win over Morristown at Morris Knolls High School.
The win sent Montville to the semifinals for what is believed to be the first time since the late 1970s. It will take on fourth seed Villa Walsh on Friday night at the County College of Morris in Randolph at 8 p.m.
“It’s so tough playing a conference opponent in a county tournament game," Montville coach Derek Lynn said. "They get two or three looks at you and they know everything you do. Coach Pisciotto from Morristown has his kids so well-prepared. They gave us a really good shot early on. They defend well, and they took us out of our game a little bit. We switched up what we were doing at halftime a little bit, and we started executing a little bit better. We made some shots, which are important, and got a few key stops as well.”
The game saw Montville hold a 3-2 lead early on in the first quarter, before Morristown took the lead, as Montville found some open looks for shots, but was ice-cold from the field as seemingly no shots went down. Morristown took advantage and pressured Montville throughout, causing the Mustangs to get out of their usual strategy.
Morristown led by as much as six in the third quarter. But the Mustangs clawed their way back into it, as Emma Wax and Grace Kowalski knocked down back-to-back threes to give Montville a 26-24 lead late in the third, and the team never looked back.
“That’s what this gym does to us," Lynn said. "We’ve never won in this gym in the county tournament. We average around 32 points per game when we play in the county tournament. We knew it was going to be a battle. Thankfully in the second half the shots started falling.”
Lynn added, “This gym doesn’t really benefit how we play. Hopefully C.C.M. does (laughs).”
Montville was led by the Vito sisters in the fourth quarter, as Bella and Dani combined for the vast majority of the team's points in the final frame as Montville went on a 17-8 run in the fourth to ultimately secure the victory. Bella Vito finished with a game-high of 18 points, hitting several key free throws down the stretch, while Dani finished the game with seven points. Emma Wax added 14 points, which consisted of two 3-pointers and eight free throws.
“They’ve been big for us all year long," Lynn said of the Vito sisters. "Dani’s becoming more and more confident, especially in her offensive abilities. You saw it tonight. They’re both great athletes, and they’re both great kids. They really fit in well to what we do here.”
Now, Montville stands just two wins away from program history. The team still holds an unblemished 19-0 record, one of just three teams in the entire state to be undefeated at this point in the year. It has home games against Mendham and Morristown this week, before taking the floor on Friday night in the MCT semifinals.
A win on Friday would send Montville to the finals for the first time since 1977, which would end a 43-year drought.
“We’re very excited," Lynn said. "For me personally, this is a game I’ve circled from the beginning of the year because we just haven’t gotten past this point. It’s kind of in our heads a little bit playing in this gym. To get past this point gives us a fresh life, and a new beginning. We’re looking forward to next Friday.”
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