Fittingly, what will go down in history as one of the greatest and most improbable comebacks in the Tournament of Champions era started with a putback.
Such a bucket is so easily underappreciated despite all the metaphoric meaning it encompasses. Persistence, desire and tenacity all play significant roles in the process that wills a player to work through a boxout and any other physical obstructions to acquire the necessary inside position to retrieve an offensive rebound and convert it.
The act is maybe more defining of someone’s heart than it is of someone’s skill. And, heart, an intangible that’s virtually impossible to measure let alone defend, was something that Gill St. Bernard’s proved it had an endless surplus of while crafting an epic rally from a 23-point deficit midway through the third quarter against the likes of mighty Shabazz.
“This was simply about heart,’’ Gill St. Bernard’s senior center Dominique Vitalis confirmed. “We kept encouraging each other and playing with intensity. We were getting beat up. We were down and I think we realized all that in the midst of the third quarter.”
“We never stopped playing our hearts out,” said sophomore swing Taylor Rooks, who provided the putback, which was part of a three-point play that seemed somewhat pedestrian at the time but proved to be the seminal moment that changed the complexion of the contest. “It’s unbelievable.”
Rooks’ unyielding effort became contagious as fourth-seeded Gill St. Bernard’s discovered its shooting touch over the final 12 minutes in putting together an incredible and unforeseen surge that stunned top-seeded Shabazz en route to a 60-56 victory on Thursday night in the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions semifinal at Pine Belt Arena in Toms River.
The crowd was announced at 980, but many of those in attendance headed toward the exits with 3:58 showing in the third after Naqaiyyah Teague’s jumper gave Shabazz (30-2) what, by most accounts outside of the Gill St. Bernard’s camp, appeared to be an insurmountable 44-21 lead.
What those of little faith missed out on was a defining performance by Gill St. Bernard’s (29-4), No. 6 in the MSG Varsity New Jersey Top 15, that thoroughly embodied the Knights’ undying resolve.
“Up 23, they probably felt they had it,” Gill St. Bernard’s coach Aaron Gratch said of top-ranked Shabazz. “I credit the girls all day for going at it. I tried to explain to the kids what they’d just accomplished. It was hard to put into words.”
As much as that heart played such a huge part in all this, so, too, did Gill St. Bernard’s steely nerves in the face of such a formidable deficit. With all the reason to go into panic mode and rush shots in a desperate pursuit to make a move, the Knights continued to execute with patience and, subsequently, sharpness that earned them a spot opposite third-seeded Manasquan, a 56-50 winner over second-seeded St. Rose in the other semifinal, on Tuesday night at 6:30 in the T of C final at the Izod Center in East Rutherford.
The 9-for-32 shooting spell that was partially to blame for being buried in such a deep hole was offset by a torrid 13-for-18 streak over the final 11:13 that dug it out of the depths of despair.
Trevena Bennett drove inside for a layup to go with a pair of foul shots, Jasmine Sina and Samantha Graber each drilled a 3-pointer and Rooks found Vitalis underneath for a bucket during a 15-0 run the closed out the third and drew Gill within 44-36 entering the fourth.
“Honestly, it was just a crazy game,” said Sina, who scored eight of her 10 points over the last 10 minutes. “I knew we could get ourselves back in the game because we’ve done it before. We have such heart and everyone played together to pull it off. We had to knock down our shots. We started attacking the rim more, drawing fouls and getting free throws.”
A free throw from senior Aliyyah Handford, whose brilliant four-year career at Shabazz ended with a signature 26-point performance, and putback by sophomore De’Ashia Jones seemed to stabilize the Bulldogs, who, despite being plagued by foul troubles, built their lead back to 47-36 with 6:38 to go.
Gill St. Bernard’s, which has played primarily with a six-player rotation, got something from each and every one of those resources down the stretch as it outscored Shabazz, 22-9 over the last 6:14.
Vitalis, who ended with 17 points and seven rebounds, sparked the surge with a turnaround and followed a 3-pointer from Sina with a finish inside that whittled the gap to 47-43. Jones seemed to stem the tide once more for Shabazz with a three-point play but Gill St. Bernard’s was too consumed by the momentum it was building to let that play defuse the rush.
Rooks sank a pull-up that sparked a game-breaking 10-0 run and she deposited a rebound of her own miss with 3:02 left that put the Knights in front, 51-50.
The lead they worked so hard to achieve was something they refused to surrender.
Rooks, who finished with 15 points, 15 rebounds and six assists, backed two free throws by Sam Graber with a foul-line jumper off a dish from Sina to provide Gill St. Bernard’s with a 55-50 advantage with 1:30 remaining.
Shabazz emphasized that its opponent wasn’t the only one inclined to play with passion. After Jones scored inside, teammate Zaire O’Neil made a steal and fed Handford. The flashy 5-9 guard, who repeatedly attacked the rim with her unique combination of finesse and power to drive through contact, scored one more time at the rim to narrow the gap to 55-54.
Sina hit two foul shots to make it a three-point game. After Handford raced inside for a basket with 3.4 seconds showing, Shabazz was whistled for a technical foul for calling a timeout when it had none left, but it was a moot point by then. Sina converted two more from the line and Linnett Graber added one more foul shot to stamp a testament to the power of perseverance.
“They started hitting shots and we couldn’t get back into our game after halftime,” said Shabazz sophomore forward Zaire O’Neil. “They were working off our mistakes. They are a great team and you never underestimate anybody. Once they starting knocking down shots, we couldn’t produce.”
Shabazz used its blazing speed in transition to build up a 34-18 lead by halftime. It outscored Gill, 12-0, in fast-break points as it parlayed long rebounds into runouts behind Handford, who accumulated 17 points and four of her six steals before intermission.
But, once Gill started finding the range on some its jumpers and balanced them with drives and entries inside to Vitalis and Rooks, opportunities for Shabazz to run the on the break no longer materialized as the game took on more of a halfcourt flavor.
O’Neil, Jones and Handford all played a good portion of the fourth quarter with four fouls apiece yet played through their plight. O’Neil and Jones, two 6-0 sophomore forwards, combined for 15 points, 10 rebounds and nine of Shabazz’s 17 steals. Handford came up with six thefts.
“We started slowing the ball down and stopped playing our game,” O’Neil said. “Once they got into motion, it was too late for us to warm back up. But, I thought the effort we gave at the end of the game was outstanding.”
Gregg Lerner covers girls basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @gregglerner