NEW PROVIDENCE, NJ - Bend but do not break. That was the story of the game for the New Providence Lady Pioneers who defeated a fast and tall University team 48-45 on Wednesday night at New Providence High School.
The Lady Pioneers held a lead throughout the whole contest and were up by as many as eight points in the first quarter. They let University come to within a point or two in the fourth quarter, but never gave up their advantage and held on to win the game. Laura Gregory led her team with 17 points and Nan Tucker added 15 before a loud and roaring crowd of over 200 fans.
With less than one minute to go in the fourth quarter, the Lady Pioneers were up by a score of 44 to 41. However, University's Shanique Granes hit a big shot to bring her team within one before Connie Haggerty of the Lady Pioneers hit two key free throws to stretch the lead back to three. Granes hit another shot as University was down by a point yet again with less than twenty seconds left.
After New Providence lost possession of the ball, guard Kaitlyn Cresencia made perhaps the play of the game for the Lady Pioneers when she intercepted a University pass and advanced the ball up court. Haggerty then received the ball, was again fouled and again made both of her free throws to give her team a three point edge.
University had one last chance to tie the game, but missed a desperation three pointer at the buzzer as New Providence fans bombarded their team in celebration.
"We knew we had to play hard. I told the girls that we were going to make mistakes, but it's how we reacted to those mistakes that are going to make this game," New Providence Head Coach Cap Pazdera said. "They kept their heads up and did what they needed to do."
The Lady Pioneers have won their third state sectional championship in three years. However, this year many thought they would not repeat because they needed to defeat two difficult division one teams in the tournament to do so. "We're like the team that everybody says 'oh they're not going to make it far.' Secaucus is going to win over us and everything, but we pulled it out tonight…when everyone underestimated us," Gregory said.
New Providence came out firing on all cylinders in the first quarter. All five starters had at least two points and they hit all but two jump shots and held a 10 to 2 lead with just over four minutes left in the opening period.
Coach Pazdera mentioned that it was important for his girls to get off to a fast start and not be intimidated. He also said that University was probably taken by surprise and knocked back a little bit, not expecting his team to hit all of the shots that they did.
The second quarter saw the Lady Pioneers maintain control of a very tightly played matchup. Gregory and other players hit the big shots when they had to and the team continued to pester University's season-leading scorer Amber Thompson. She was held to just six points on Wednesday night.
"We were worried about the backside. We knew that they were not going to take a lot of shots from the perimeter," Coach Pazdera said. "We said if we could cover that weak side and box out then we had a chance to limit them to taking (only a few shots per possession). They were all fighting for rebounds (too) and it was fun to watch."
Much like many other games this season for the Lady Pioneers, the sectional finals win was a team effort. Whether it was Haggerty hitting clutch foul shots to ice the game, or players making a big defensive stop when they had to, or simply passing the ball to the open player for an easy look, every Lady Pioneer player had an important role against University.
"Tonight everyone pulled together. Throughout the whole state tournament we played as a team and I think that's how we won it," Gregory said.
What does all of the emotion of winning a state sectional championship after a season of hard work mean to Coach Pazdera and his team? "I don't think I grasped the reality of how big of a win this is. I'm still in a little bit of shock. This just proves that any team could beat any other team on any given day," he said.
With the win, the Lady Pioneers advance to the State Public School Semi-Final round. They will play the North I Group I Sectional Final winner, either Cresskill or Belvidere, on March 11 at Ramapo High School.