CALDWELL-- “I'm still in shock,” emphasized first-year West Essex Regional girls basketball head coach Maria Cirillo quite happily. Hours earlier, her Lady Knights erased an 18-point deficit, 29-11, with 3:42 left in the first half and of still 18 points, 41-23, with 3:55 on the clock in the third period, to post a 53-51 victory over crosstown competitor Caldwell in the 38th annual West Essex Area Holiday Hoops Festival finals fracas, an epic battle which took place in the Newman Center Gym on the Caldwell University campus on Tuesday night, Dec. 29.

That outcome gave the Lady Knights their second straight WEAHHF title and pushed them to 2-2 on the year, while the JCHS distaff contingent fell to 2-2.

The first and only time the Lady Knights led was when West Essex junior small forward Margaret Ribardo deflected an upcourt pass attempt by JCHS sophomore small forward Alyssa DeBlasis, after the latter had pulled down a rebound following a West Essex miss.

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The ball bounced off Ribardo's hand and then the bottom of the rim, landed at her feet and she then simply made a layup from less than three feet out for what proved to be the winning points with about 20 seconds left.

Neither team got a shot off the rest of the way, as what transpired over those final few seconds resembled dodge ball or keepaway more than organized basketball.

The score at the end of the first frame was, 23-8, and those 23 points scored in a single quarter would have been a school record, except for the fact that the Lady Chiefs led Verona, 24-8, at the end of the initial eight minutes of play in their, 49-33, victory over VHS in the first round of WEAHHF action on Monday night.

However, in the second half of the third quarter, things began to change dramatically. The lead was down to 16, at 41-25, with 2:22 on the clock, before West Essex went on a 9-0 run to close the gap to a suddenly manageable seven points, at 41-34, with 31 ticks left in the third.

Heading into that fateful final frame, it was still, 41-34, but the gap was only four points at, 45-41, at the 4:44 mark of the fourth, with the scoreboard reading, 47-45, at 3:21, 49-47, at the 2:22 mark and 51-all with 1:35 remaining in regulation—setting the stage for Ribardo's heroics.

West Essex outscored JCHS in each of last three quarters, 7-6, 19-12, and 19-10.

“It was just amazing, our girls just never gave up, never quit, never stopped battling, never thought that they were just going to give in and lose,” said Cirillo of her charges, who continually charged back. “Caldwell had some players in foul trouble, so we put on the press and that really started to turn things around.”

Leading the Lady Knights' efforts were Danica DeFrank, a junior swing player who totaled 22 points, to go along with five steals, four rebounds and an assist; Michelle Inga, a senior center who registered 14 points, a career-high 17 caroms corralled and two take-aways; Ribardo, who had six points, four boards, two thefts and one help on her stats sheet; Lily James, a sophomore shooting guard who scored seven and hauled down three rebounds; and Nicole Realbuto, an 11th-grade frontcourter who scored three points, had three boards and made five key steals.

DeFrank, who had recorded 15 points including seven in the third period, to go along with five-of-six successes from the charity stripe, three rebounds, two assists and two steals in West Essex's, 40-33, clipping of Cedar Grove in the first round, was picked as the Most Valuable Player of the 2015 WEAHHF by the staff ofNJSportAction.NET, the event's media liaison.

“Danica's energy helped dictate the control of the game,” said DeFrank. “She played tough and aggressive and that had a ripple effect on the rest of the team and, once all the girls start feeling that way, as you can see, amazing things happen.”

“This was a total team effort and I'm very, very proud of my teammates and we're thrilled that we were able to honor last year's team by repeating as champions,” added DeFrank.

“There comes a lot of pride with knowing that last year's team won and, even though we lost a lot of players from that group, we still felt we could get this done,” said Inga, adding, “we really wanted to win this for last year's group, for the fans and for each other.”

On the Caldwell side, quite understandably, things were much more somber.

“This could be the worst day of my life,” said a very disappointed JCHS head hoops honcho Ryu Saito, seemingly only half-jokingly.

“Once the shock of our press wears off, we have to learn how to be able to withstand the rally that's going to come from the other team,” the veteran mentor mused. “You saw it Monday against Verona, too. We went up by 16, 24-8, right away, but then only ended up winning by 16, meaning that they played us even for three quarters of the game.”

“Against West Essex, though, we had foul trouble, so I had to sit three starters at a key time and that was not good for us at all,” added Saito.

“By the end of the game, our kids just looked completely frazzled and that's, obviously, something we're going to have to address,” he said. “The good part is that this group of girls seems to work well together, so that's a very good start. Now we just have to build on that.”

Among the Lady Chiefs’ stats leaders were DeBlasis, who totaled 23 points, six rebounds, three steals and two assists; Brittany Costigan, a junior shooting guard who had eight points, six caroms collected and a trio of takeaways; and Rachel Galante, an 11th-grade center who registered six points and four boards before fouling out.

“Each and every game gives us an opportunity to improve,” said Cirello. “We have to take ownership of our actions. For instance, we missed 10 free throws against Caldwell after we had missed only three against Cedar Grove. So, what we have to do is constantly think about what we can do to play better today or tomorrow.”

Tuesday, Jan. 5, will find Saito's squad traveling to take on Science Park in Newark at 4 p.m., with a trip to battle Saint Vincent's Academy in the Brick City slated for 4 p.m. the following day, while Cirillo's crew is off until Thursday, Jan. 7, when the Lady Knights are slated to face Columbia at 7 p.m. in Maplewood.

All photos taken by W. L. Bill Allen, Jr.