BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - When Gov. Livingston's Skylar Dowling and Shannon Polimeni first began playing youth PAL basketball they had plenty of support from their families. The pair of young ballers were immersed in the game, not only by their dads, Sean Dowling and Vinnie Polimeni who served as their PAL coaches, but also by big sisters Samantha Dowling and Alyssa Polimeni, who offered their guidance when they weren’t running the court for Gov. Livingston or their respective collegiate teams.
Eight years ago Skylar Dowling and Shannon Polimeni settled into the stands with several of their PAL travel basketball teammates at Kean University’s Harwood Arena to watch the Union County Tournament Girls' basketball championship game. They were treated to a great game with their home town heroes, the Gov. Livingston Lady Highlanders, coming away with a thrilling 31-26 victory over the Lady Cougars of Cranford. On the court, leading Gov. Livingston to its first ever Union County Girls Basketball Championship, were none other than their big sisters Samantha Dowling and Alyssa Polimeni. As young players looking to learn how to play the game the right way, that 2012 Gov. Livingston team, arguably the best Lady Highlander team (26-2) ever, was the one to be around.
On Saturday evening, senior backcourt mates Skylar Dowling and Shannon Polimeni will be looking to follow in their big sisters footsteps, when they lead a surging Gov. Livingston (17- 9) team against perennial Union County power Westfield (19-5) in the finals of the UCT with hopes of bringing home a championship. After knocking out Hillside (10) and higher seeds New Providence (2) and Union Catholic (3), Dowling and Polimeni, along with the rest of the underdog Lady Highlanders, will be looking to take down top seed Westfield on the same court at Kean University that their older sisters walked off as UCT champions. Tipoff is set for 5:30 p.m.
UCT Championship Preview
Westfield coach Liz McKeon,who, before her team's semifinal game, watched Skylar Dowling score 23 2nd half points and 26 of her team's 36 total points against Union Catholic, will certainly have something in store for Gov. Livingston's leading scorer. Governor Livingston coach Chris Eckert should be prepared for the Westfield defense to either double Dowling or possibly play at least a box and one against her. That means Gov. Livingston will need big games from secondary scorers Paige Phillips from behind the arc and slasher Gianna Cicciamarra, who has the ability to attack the rim. If Westfield employs a box against Dowling, Polimeni, who has a knack for finding a soft spot in opposing defenses, along with center Reagan Hopeck will need to be near perfect with any scoring opportunities around the basket.
However, defense will be the key to a Gov. Livingston victory. The emergence of soccer star Allie Post off the bench has energized the team, especially on defense. Against Union Catholic, Post sparked the comeback with three critical steals in the last two minutes of the game. When Eckert turns up the pressure, expect Post to be the main disruptor. Post's length and Ciccimarra's quickness turned over Union Catholic multiple times, putting the ball back in Dowling's hands. A clutch foul shooter down the stretch, Dowling made the most of her opportunities at the line, hitting 12 of 13 against Union Catholic.
In Gov. Livingston's wins over New Providence (27) and Union Catholic (31), they held both teams to season scoring lows. If Gov. Livingston wants to come out on top against Westfield they need to hold the Lady Blue Devils under 40.
Westfield hasn’t relied on any one player this season. Having now won 15 straight games, it seems every time out someone else turns in a big performance. Just like Gov. Livingston in their semifinal win, Westfield closed out the last two minutes of their game on a 7-0 run for a dramatic comeback 40-36 win over Oak Knoll. Faith Dobosiewicz was the late hero with a huge three and a bucket underneath to seal the win. Battle tested seniors Dobosiewicz, Caroline Dwyer, and Ali Lisanti lead a roster full of underclassman who are athletic and strong. Chloe Kreusser is the team's leading scorer and rebounder with Dwyer and Lisanti presenting the biggest threats from the three point line.
With a deep bench Westfield has the advantage if McKeon chooses to apply full court pressure to wear down Gov. Livingston.
This season Westfield (19-5) and Gov. Livingston have had very similar seasons. Both teams got off to slow starts before going on long win streaks. However, one big difference between the two teams is Westfield has played a much more challenging schedule. Westfield heads into the final red hot,riding a 15 game win streak. Gov. Livingston's path to the UCT Championship game seemed improbable just a couple of weeks ago after a crushing 47-22 loss to Union Catholic on Jan. 25th. However since that loss, Gov. Livingston has won 10 of 11, and clearly is playing their best ball of the year.
The two teams have not played this season. The last time Gov. Livingston faced Westfield was in last year's UCT quarterfinals with the Lady Blue Devils coming away with a 49-36 win. Many of the key performers in last year's game will be on the court Saturday night.
Westfield is in the final for the second straight season and for the fourth time in the past six. Gov. Livingston has not reached the final game since they won the title in 2013.
This game with underdog Gov. Livingston wanting to prove that it belongs in the championship game and Westfield with a roster full of players who want to avenge years loss has all the makings of a classic UCT final.