LIVINGSTON, NJ — The West Essex girls basketball team is moving on in the Essex County Tournament following a 50-49 victory over Livingston on Saturday on the Lancers’ home court.
“We got lucky because if we miss a few more foul shots or a few more layups, the game is over,” said West Essex head coach Maria Cirello.
The two teams were tied at 37-37 midway through the fourth quarter; but as the game stood in the balance, the Knights turned to senior leader Jessica Coia to help turn the game back in their favor.
“The girl I was playing against had four fouls, so I needed to continue to try and shoot,” said Coia.
Coia took advantage of a height disparity and connected on four-consecutive points to give West Essex a two-possession lead. She ultimately finished with 10 points on the afternoon.
“Today, we executed a little bit,” said Cirello. “There was a big mismatch in the paint; so that was our go-to, and we capitalized on that opportunity.”
Livingston continued to battle, closing the game to within one possession. The Lancers, who were decisively defeated at the hands of West Essex earlier this year, refused to go quietly with their playoff lives on the line.
Aliza Gelman was impressive on the court throughout the game, scoring 16 of Livingston’s 49 points. Also finding the basket multiple times on Saturday were Sarah Cullen and Hailey Reuter with nine points a piece, Lauren Belcuore with eight and Ava Intile with six.
“At this point in the season, it’s tough,” said Cirello. “Anybody can beat anybody. It’s about who is going to fight to the end.”
As double teams drew to Coia, the perimeter became open for the Lady Knights. Halle Aschenbach, who struggled with shooting for most of the game, nailed a key three-pointer to extend the lead again for West Essex.
“A lot of teams have tried to close [Aschenbach] off completely and not allow her to score, but she does a lot of other things for us,” said Cirello. “She rebounds, she’s a ball handler—there’s other things she can do to help us, and she’s really adjusted her game to do that.”
Over the course of the game’s final minute, the two squads alternated scoring opportunities from the foul line. Eventually, West Essex closed out the game with key free throws from Gianna Puorro, Olivia Weiss and Katelyn Doud.
“It’s nerve-racking, but we trust each other, and we work a lot on [foul shots] in practice, so we just need to focus on what we need to do and execute,” said Coia.
As the team has also been “working on the press,” according to Cirello, the Knights should be particularly satisfied with their defensive efforts in this victory as well. Despite giving up 49 points, the group forced an unofficial 21 Lancer turnovers.
On the offensive end overall, it was a collective effort from the Knights, with six different players finding baskets and three of them scoring double digits to showcase the depth of the roster.
“It’s great [that] if someone is being face-guarded, we know we can depend on the other players to pick up the momentum,” said Coia.
Improving to 11-7 on the season, the Knights have now won two of their last three games as they head into the next round of the tournament. Cirello said the Knights know they will need to “bring the intensity” as they take on top-seeded University—a team that Cirello described as “tough” and “scrappy.”
Prior to Saturday’s defeat, the Lancers had won their last three games and still stand at a strong 14-4 overall record this season. Livingston will take on Mount St. Dominic in an away matchup on Feb. 11.