TOMS RIVER, NJ - Nothing came easily for the Franklin girls basketball team Wednesday night.
The Warriors' first-round matchup in the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions against Old Tappan was a physical grind from start to finish, but in the end, third-seeded Franklin advanced with a 56-45 victory and moved on to Friday night's semifinal round at 5:30 p.m. against second-seeded St. Rose of Belmar.
That game will be back on the campus of Toms River North High school as the front end of a semifinal doubleheader. The championship game is scheduled for Sunday afternoon at Sun National Bank Center Arena in Trenton.
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Junior forward Diamond Miller finished with 26 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and five blocks for Franklin (24-7). Miller netted 18 of her points in the second half.
Wednesday night was not the first time the Warriors needed more than a half to get control of a game, but it was one of few games in which Franklin was never able to unleash one of its withering runs to devastate an opponent with its usually lethal combination of pressure defense and sleek transition game.
Sixth-seeded Old Tappan (28-5), a strong defensive team that committed itself to bodying up to Franklin and playing physical basketball, was like a cold, snowy month of March--they just wouldn't go away.
"We didn't play our game tonight," said Miller, a 6-foot junior who just made a verbal commitment to the University of Maryland last week. "We didn't execute, and we just were not passing the ball like we usually do. It was a very ugly game."
That ugliness was partly by design from Old Tappan's standpoint. The Bergen County team slowed the game down, did not allow Franklin to dictate the tempo and banged the Warriors around a bit when they put the ball on the floor and ventured into the lane.
"They were physical. They may have been a little too physical," Miller said of Franklin's opponents. "I don't think the refs controlled the game the way they should have."
The game was still tied, 17-17, late in the first half before Camille Gray sank a jumper and then Miller buried a 3-pointer with 24 seconds left to give Franklin a 22-17 lead going into the half. The Warriors shot just 36 percent in the first half and committed nine turnovers. However, Franklin's defense, as stout as ever, forced Old Tappan into 14 turnovers in that first half.
But Old Tappan continued to hang around, and was back within a single point, 28-27, after a driving layup by Noelle Gonzalez with 2:03 left in the third quarter. Gonzalez led Old Tappan with 18 points and four steals.
With Old Tappan breathing down the Warriors' necks and back within a point, Miller took over the last two minutes of the third quarter, scoring eight points and handing out an assist in that stretch. She drove for a basket, drained a 3-pointer and then, after Old Tappan scored on an offensive rebound, Miller was fouled on a driving layup and converted the and-one for a 3-point play with 20 seconds left. Then Miller rifled a pass to Gray underneath for a layup with four seconds left to give Franklin a 38-29 lead.
"They came out with crazy high energy," Gray said of Old Tappan. "When we're not hitting our shots, we either have to board off our missed shots, or drive the lane."
Gray turned in a solid game in several areas with 11 points, a team-high six thefts and three rebounds.
Old Tappan's last charge brought the Bergen County squad within six, 46-40, with 2:06 left, but Franklin responded with a 10-2 run ignited by Miller's feed to Gray for a layup and then a driving bucket by Miller with 1:20 left.
While the finished product may have lacked Franklin's customary assortment of picturesque highlight plays, the Warriors nonetheless dug down and defended like their lives depended on it, holding Old Tappan to just 20 percent shooting (7-for-35) in the second half. Keona Schenk finished with nine points and four steals for Franklin, which made 18 of 48 (.375) in the game and sank 68 percent (17 for 25) of its free throws.