SUMMIT, NJ - Having led since early in the first quarter of Saturday night's Central, Group II semifinal game - at one instance by nine points - over a Willingboro squad that started three freshmen, the No. 3-seeded Summit Lady Hilltoppers were staring at the scoreboard after every whistle and stoppage of play. It must have been almost unbelievable for his players and especially for Summit head coach Brian Erickson to see the scoreboard display a lead of only one point, 34-33, with 3:45 to play in regulation, especially considering that the Hilltoppers had controlled nearly every phase of the game for 28 minutes and change up until that point.
With his team clinging to the slimmest of leads, Erickson saw again what he has seen numerous times over the past four years - a big play on the defensive end by center Cassie Hall and a clutch bucket by guard Emily Cristaldi. "Look at my senior leadership - Emily [Cristaldi], Michelle [Burian] and Cassie [Hall]," a jubilant Erickson said after the game.
"We're just very excited and honored to be representing Summit in the finals on Monday. I just can't say enough about them. I trust them implicitly, I have all the faith in the world in them. Tonight [we faced] Willingboro, a great team and it got a little nervous and a little tight, but my team held together. I have said this all year long and my coaching staff [has also said], 'We have Emily.' She's our offense and I know it and that's what we work for. She hit that big three to put us up [four points with 3:45 to go] and she was just tremendous."
Cristaldi drilled a long three pointer to put the Hilltoppers up 37-33 but more than simply making a big shot in a key situation, the senior's ice cold nerves and red-hot shooting touch sent a lightning bolt of confidence through her teammates and coaches and propelled Summit toward a huge victory, giving them the mental lift they needed in order close out the game against a tough Willingboro team.
Though they led by six points at the beginning of the fourth quarter on their home court, Summit played shoddy basketball and Willingboro got hot and that combination made the final period a nailbiter for Erickson and his team. Yet when their backs were pushed to the wall, Cristaldi - long Summit's leader and scoring machine - not only had the guts to take and make such a long three, but her teammate and fellow senior, center Cassie Hall, started the sequence on the defensive end with a huge blocked shot that hit a Willingboro player and skipped out of bounds which gave the Hilltoppers possession.
"Cassie, she yells at me all the time and I can yell back at her," Erickson said. "She's the backbone of this team. She's the heart and soul of what we do and she always has been since Day One. I couldn't wait to get her [on the varsity team]. I remember when she was in eighth grade about to come up, she's just been [a great player for] us."
The No. 3-seeded Hilltoppers carried the play through the first three quarters and they led by five points at the end of the first (9-4), nine at the half (20-11) and six at the end of three (32-26). Willingboro got a monster game from Micaiah Owens - who led all scorers with 25 points - and she singlehandedly brought the Chimeras to within a point thanks to her range with the jumpshot and several drives to the basket that she either converted into lay-ups or picked up points at the free throw line.
After having defeated Delran in the first round and Bordentown in the quarterfinals to get to this point, Erickson gathered his team together and broke out a classic piece of coach-speak that inspired his team to find the mental fortitude needed to re-establish a comfortable lead and hang on for one of the biggest victories in school history. When asked during his post-game interview what he said to his team at such a critical moment in the game, Erickson responded: "This is exactly what I said to them and all the people behind the bench can back this up - we do a lot in the offseason, we go to Villanova for team camp, we play in Seton Hall's camp, a lot of kids play AAU and we're in here every day in the summer when it's 112 degrees - I said, 'That is why we're here, for this moment. Enjoy the moment, recognize it and just let it go. There is a reason why we do all the work we do.' I think it paid off tonight."
Not only did his words pay off, they set the tone for Summit to finish the game strong and set up a championship date with girls basketball powerhouse Shabazz at Shabazz on Monday evening.
In a moment of candor and honesty, Ericson pointed out that he and his team know the mountain of a challenge that lies in front of them, but they will not go quietly into the night. "If we could play [against Shabazz] with eight people, I'd be happy," Erickson said. "Here's what we're going to do: we are going to enjoy every moment of what we're doing and we're going to compete hard from the opening tap until the final buzzer and if we somehow knock them off, then great for us, but as long as we represent this town, this program and this school with pride and respect, I will be very happy."
After the final buzzer sounded, the scoreboard read "Summit 44, Willingboro 37" and the gym erupted with shrieks and cheers, yet Erickson simply stood just in front of his spot on the bench, both arms raised with fists above his head and an ear-to-ear smile painted across his face. While his players stormed the court to hug, high-five and celebrate with one another, Erickson grabbed each of his assistant coaches one-by-one and gave them bear hugs. The man at the helm of the Lady Hilltoppers' program was obviously overcome with joy and minutes after the game, those emotions were still on full display during his postgame interview.
"This is great. My team, and also - please, I want to say this - my coaching staff, I love them to death. They are the best. This is just one of the best moments of my life right now and in my entire coaching career," Erickson said. "My team, I can't say enough about them, I love them to death. [Making the sectional finals] was a goal for us. We lost to Westfield [on February 18th in the Union County Tournament] and in that locker room after the game we made a deal that we have to get to play Shabazz [in the final] and that was the goal."