FAIRFIELD, NJ - Clinging to a one-point lead with 54 seconds remaining, the Cedar Grove girls basketball team had an opening-night victory in sight, but it would all come to a disappointing end for the Lady Panthers, who ultimately fell to West Essex, 34-32.

“The first 14 minutes of the second half we played well, those last two minutes we need to work on,” said Cedar Grove head coach Bill Scanlon.

The Lady Knights put the pressure on the Lady Panther defense in the final minutes, racing down the floor to free up Lilly James for the game-winning three pointer. James, who was blanked for the opening 47 minutes of the game, collected back-to-back three pointers, including one with eight seconds remaining to send Cedar Grove to a crushing defeat.

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“We said we cannot let her alone…in transition she was up the floor and we lost her and those three’s were the difference in the game,” said Scanlon, who took full blame for the defensive errors.

The loss is particularly hard to swallow for Cedar Grove, as the team made solid adjustments at the beginning of the second half to take the lead in the contest. Gianna Bocchino, Jessica Sinisi, and Ava Fernandez combined to send the Lady Panthers on an 8-0 scoring run that eventually led to a 22-16 lead after three quarters of play. The trio combined to score 21 of the teams 32 points on the night.

“We’re small, but we get the ball to the basket pretty well,” said Scanlon. "When we run our offense and create seams where kids can dribble & drive it opens up our offense."

Despite the excitement in the second half, the first two quarters of play were a polar opposite. Each team, perhaps feeling each other out, managed to struggle finding consistent offense. The two teams combined for a total of 20 points at the half with West Essex leading, 12-8.

“Everybody is nervous, coaches are nervous, kids are nervous, they’re seniors they know it’s important,” said Scanlon.

Cedar Grove will look to correct its mistakes, as this is the first of many games on the schedule. Scanlon was particularly pleased, however, with the team’s defensive performance against a vertically superior West Essex squad.

“We managed to play good defense all game against their size matchups, they pounded the ball into the post and we defended it well,” said Scanlon.

Cedar Grove will look to rebound from this loss with a game against Livingston on Dec. 19. While the current loss stings, it will serve as an early test of the games to come in a loaded SEC Conference.

“Every single game is going to be like this…the saying is under pressure you either crack or get diamonds and we’ll find out,” said Scanlon.

All photos by Nick Teodoro.