Chambers, St. Rose edge IHA for title
As cerebral as she is, Kasey Chambers couldn’t chalk up her steal to any kind of intellectual breakdown of tendency or patterns. But, that is the genius of the St. Rose point guard. As high of a basketball IQ as she has, Chambers doesn’t allow it to trump her equally-keen intuitions.
“I don’t know what it is,” Chambers said. “In a situation like that, instincts take over. I honestly wasn’t looking for anything. It was just defense.”
As much as her value as ballhandler and organizer on offense is appreciated, Chambers’ defense is perhaps even more invaluable. She plays it shrewd, but also by the seat of her pants.
It was that daring element that prompted her to step in to make a critical interception of a pass with 44 seconds left and St. Rose clinging to a two-point lead against Immaculate Heart Academy.
“That steal was the play of the game,” St. Rose coach Joe Roman said. “It was the turning point because it changed the whole complexion of it right there.”
Chambers hit a subsequent free throw and Diana Malanga came up with a big rebound before tacking on another foul shot as St. Rose, No. 2 in The MSG Varsity New Jersey Top 15, withstood the grit and persistence of Immaculate Heart Academy to post a 42-38 triumph on Saturday in the NJSIAA Non-Public A state final before 630 at the Pine Belt Arena in Toms River.
St. Rose (29-1) captured its first state championship since winning Non-Public B in 2000 but had to a work all 32 minutes in order to secure it.
While the theft by Chambers was amplified due to the timing of it, St. Rose could pass credit in any number of directions and not miss the mark due to the contributions over all that were involved.
From the perimeter accuracy of senior Morgan Barry, quality resistance and board work of sophomore Sarah Kurtz and resolve of 6-2 senior forward Sam Clark, St. Rose had no shortage of heroes.
The end-game plays made by Chambers and Malanga were byproducts of a more energized effort exuded by St. Rose in the second half, when it erased a 20-16 halftime deficit.
A 3-pointer from Barry, who was 4-for-5 from long range, put St. Rose in front for the first time, 21-20 with 6:28 showing in the third. From there, the lead was exchanged on three occasions before the two sides entered the fourth in a 31-31 deadlock.
In a tight final that saw neither side conceded an inch of court and challenge just about any shot attempt, St. Rose scored the first five points of the fourth without the assistance of a field goal and never relinquished the advantage, despite the ominous threats posed by IHA.
Malanga, who finished 5 of 10 from the line, hit a foul shot and Clark, converted four more to build a 36-31 advantage for St. Rose with 4:13 remaining.
Lindsay Khoury and Samantha Wilkes countered with two free throws apiece that drew IHA within 38-35 and Izzy McMahon came up with a steal along the sideline, earned a foul and made 1 of 2 to whittle the deficit to 38-36 with 1:43 to go.
Chambers dropped in two more free throws only to have senior center Raquel Scott sink a turnaround off McMahon feed with 1:22 showing to trim St. Rose’s lead to 40-38. But, that was as close as IHA would get.
Following her steal, Chambers made one free throw and when IHA misfired on a potential game-tying 3-point attempt, the tenacious 5-6 Malanga slipped underneath to grab the defensive rebound. She drew a foul and hit the second of two free throws with six seconds left to the seal the outcome.
“The intensity wasn’t there in the first half,” said Malanga, who collected five points, five boards and two steals. “We needed to come out with a lot more in the second half. Their help defense was great and their on-the-ball pressure was just phenomenal. It was hard to get the ball inside.”
While St. Rose is so often lauded for the ferocity of its defense, Immaculate Heart (24-4) matched it behind its cohesive man-to-man that collapsed on Clark anytime she got a touch in the paint and offered her limited space to operate.
“I tried my best and my teammates did a tremendous job helping out,” said IHA senior center Raquel Scott, who offered stout interior resistance to complement 10 points and 12 rebounds. “We went at it. We were up at halftime and we lost to the No. 2 team in the (MSG Varsity) Tri-State area. I’m not looking at it as we lost but how much we improved from the beginning of the season.”
“You look at their lineup and you see the incredible physical presence of their post player,” IHA coach Steve Silver said of Clark. “She’s smooth, she has good hands, quick feet and steps out to shoot threes. To the best of our ability, we were going to deny her when she’s low, stay behind her when she’s high and have our weakside post come help and rotate off of that. The risk was giving up some perimeter shots.”
And, Barry seized that room along the arc. She nailed a pair of threes in the closing 1:17 of the first quarter that helped St. Rose draw even at 8-8 and hit her third 1:22 shy of halftime to keep the Belmar school within striking distance as it went into intermission down, 20-16.
“Whenever my defender dropped off of me and I got the ball, I shot I real quick and they went it,” said Barry, who netted 12 points through her economical deep touch.
IHA made it abundantly clear from the jump it came to win. Three rebounds from Scott, layups from Khoury and Lindsay Rogers and a 3-pointer from McMahon staked the Blue Eagles to a 7-1 lead, the largest degree of separation between the two teams in the contest.
Wilkes, IHA’s 6-1 junior point guard, pulsated with confidence as she engineered the offense, finishing with a team-best 11 points, four rebounds and three assists. Not bad for a player who missed the first nine games of the season while recovering from a surgery on her right shoulder.
“That first game back, I remember I was thinking how out of shape I was and I had no muscle in my arm,” said Wilkes, who by season’s end resembled the commanding playmaker who can thread a pass through the slightest seam, penetrate off the wings to stick the pull-up jumper and pilot the offense with a hint of swagger. “I focused from week to week on what I needed to do to get back to where I was.”
One player whose confidence remained high in the face of all the extra defensive attention was Clark, who shot 4 for 11 with people draped on or around her, and was a perfect 6 for 6 at the line in accumulating 14 points as well as nine rebounds. She was the quiet catalyst of the second-half rally, dropping in 10 points after the break.
“I felt the pressure of the girls around me,” she said. “I knew I had to stay strong.”
“Give credit to IHA, they did a great job of limiting Sam’s space,” Roman said. “But, she kept playing. The whole team kept playing and I couldn’t be prouder of this group.”
Gregg Lerner covers girls basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @gregglerner