SOMERVILLE—The South Plainfield High School girls basketball team has been surprising people all year, and tonight they tried to keep that trend going as they traveled to Somerset County  to take on a very formidable Somerville High School team in the quarterfinals of the North 2, Group 3 sectional tournament.

It would’ve taken a lot of things going their way for the 8th-seeded Tigers (12-16) to get an upset against the top-seeded Pioneers (17-6), but unfortunately for South Plainfield, the home team came out in full force.

Led by the stellar play of their all-time scoring leader Melody Van Ness, the Pioneers controlled the game wire-to-wire and handed the Tigers a 70-42 season ending loss. Even though Somerville’s talent took the game over from tipoff, the Tigers played with full effort until the final whistle.  South Plainfield head coach Kevin Hughes said he was proud of the fight his players  showed in the loss.

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“I’m so proud of them because no matter what the score is or the situation is, if you’re on the floor with a Tigers jersey on you go a 100% and I think we did that all 32 minutes,” Hughes said. “What they did just epitomizes what the kids have done (all season).”

After the game, Hughes said the Pioneers probably would’ve had to come flat for the Tigers to have a real chance of winning. To say the Pioneers ended up coming out strong would be a grievous understatement.

The top-seeded team absolutely shot the lights out early on, and their accuracy helped them take a 25-6 lead at the end of the first quarter. The speed and athleticism of Van Ness proved to be a thorn in the side of South Plainfield, and her fast break buckets helped her earn 16 points by halftime. Even Hughes noted how strong Somerville looked in the first quarter.

“I knew the only way we had a chance was if they didn’t come out on fire and (Somerville played) the best quarter of basketball I think we’ve seen all season and that includes Sayreville,” the coach said. “It was very impressive. We got their A-game and they were just on a different level than us.”

Van Ness finished the game with 22 points, seven steals and six assists.

The night wasn’t a total wash for the Tigers though, as senior guard Caity Hughes managed to create some history for South Plainfield in her final outing for the team. Having broken South Plainfield’s single-season steals record a few weeks ago, Hughes only needed to record five more to have the most career steals in Tiger history.

By halftime, Hughes was just two swipes away from passing the 273 steals mark set by Liz Russo 23 years ago. The senior guard finished the game with nine steals total, which makes South Plainfield’s new career record 278.

Caity Hughes also scored eight points, while Grace Ochoa led the team with ten buckets.

The loss marked the end of a surprisingly impressive season for the Tigers. After the team lost their standout player Sarah Cargill to graduation last year, many expected this season  to be little more than a throwaway season.  The Tigers proved their doubters wrong by winning six games in a row, which helped the earn a home playoff game, which they won handily against Belleville earlier this week.

Hughes said he used his last post-game speech of the season to thank his team for all they’ve done this year.

“Enough people told me, whether it was fellow coaches or people in town: ‘What are you going to do without Sara?’ ‘You won 11 games last year, and you'll be lucky to win five or six this year’, the coach recalled.  

“As a coach you don’t want to believe that, but the more you hear it you ask yourself if we’re going to have that kind of year. (My team) came out and completely exceeded those expectations. We got a nice win streak and we got a home state game. Last year we didn’t even make states. It wasn’t our night tonight, but as far as this season goes, I’m happy and proud of them.”