Sam Clark has the art of diplomacy down so cold she could have a future as an ambassador.
Her status as the go-to figure for St. Rose notwithstanding, the senior forward would never have the gall to echo such sentiments. She has always toed the company line, no part bigger than the sum, even if her part as the 6-2 interior threat is clearly the indisputable centerpiece for which St. Rose’s halfcourt offense revolves around.
What Clark can’t refute is how loudly her actions speak. All it takes is one of her strong, signature seals in the post followed by her harkening outstretched hand to signal she is locked in her favorite position and, in her own quiet fashion, demanding the chance to deliver.
Sarah Kurtz recognized the commanding posture with just over three minutes left in regulation and St. Rose trailing for the first time since early in the second quarter and didn’t have to think. The sophomore just reacted as she always does, with a calm entry from the top of the arc right into the trustworthy hands of Clark, who turned and deposited the type of layup she could make in her sleep.
The bucket put St. Rose ahead for good and was backed by two astute plays from senior point guard Kasey Chambers and one defining drive by the blossoming Kurtz, providing just enough for the top-seeded and No. 2 team in the MSG Varsity New Jersey Top 15 to stave off seventh-seeded and fifth-ranked St. John Vianney for a 34-33 triumph on Wednesday night in the NJSIAA South Jersey, Non-Public A final at Jackson Liberty.
St. Rose (28-1) advanced to the Non-Public A state final on Saturday at Pine Belt Arena in Toms River where it will face Immaculate Heart, which scored a 52-38 decision over DePaul in the North Jersey sectional final.
Held to a single free throw over the course of the first half and just three shots from the field, Clark was instrumental during the second half, instilling her will underneath and stepping outside to drain a 3-pointer en route to a team-high 12 points.
“Since they were pressuring me inside and the guards were finishing outside, they had to go out and guard them,” said Clark, who is heading to Fordham. “So, it gave me space inside and I finished with it.”
But, before she was about to apply a well-deserved pat on the back, Clark caught herself in her own modest way.
“I look for my teammates as much as I look for myself,” Clark said. “I want the best percentage shot and sometimes, it’s not just for me, so I look for everyone else.”
Hard as she may to avoid trumpeting her immeasurable value, Clark was properly lauded by more than one teammate as well as her coach.
“I knew Sam could finish anywhere she caught the ball,” said Kurtz. “So, my job was to get it in there. You know she is going to catch it and put it away. She is such a great player.”
“In those times, you trust her,” Chambers added. “She is 6-2 and we all have that will to win, but you trust her to finish that shot. We all have so much confidence in her.”
“She did a phenomenal job of getting that position,” St. Rose coach Joe Roman noted. “We weren’t really entering the basketball to her that well all game. But, she kept posting up hard and she was physical.”
In this circumstance, Clark’s political correctness was on point. For as much as she played a significant role in the Purple Roses bringing St. John Vianney’s four-year reign as the Non-Public A state champion to a close, she had plenty of help in completing the task.
When Kurtz slipped inside for a layup attempt that tumbled off the rim, Chambers was right behind her to stick in a putback with 2:15 showing that increased the lead to 32-29.
“My mom has been yelling at me since I was eight, that if you don’t run behind the ball, you’re coming out of the game,” said Chambers, who played for her mother Mary Beth on the AAU circuit. “I’ve been trained to follow a layup.”
And, after a free throw by St. John Vianney’s Jill Brunori, Kurtz drove once more, this time unimpeded to the rim for a bucket with 1:32 to go to make it 34-30.
Brunori, who ended with 12 points and six rebounds, drilled an 18-footer as well as another free throw to get St. John Vianney within 34-33 with 7.9 seconds remaining. She then seized a rebound on a missed St. Rose free throw and Vianney had the ball out of a time out with 4.7 left on the clock.
However, once it inbounded, a cross-court pass was intercepted by Chambers, who dribbled out the clock to punctuate St. Rose’s first sectional championship since it won South Jersey, Non-Public B in 2004.
“Someone said they were going long, so I was guarding that,” said Chambers, in anticipation of a deep inbounds to the other end of the court. “Then, I saw that lob pass and thought ‘this is it right here, go get it’ and I went for it.”
The victory was the third of the season for St. Rose over St. John Vianney and it came within a contest that mirrored the previous two encounters.
Hard-nosed defense ruled the evening as each side’s man-to-man made every possession magnified to the highest extreme. Throughout the first half, St. John Vianney’s 2-2-1 press and staunch halfcourt defense did a great job of influencing St. Rose, which had trouble finding its shooters in their familiar comfort zones.
The Lady Lancers induced 10 turnovers before halftime, including seven in the opening quarter when they assumed an 8-7 lead on a runner from Jackie Gallagher.
But, St. Rose responded in the second period behind its own defense. After a baseline jumper by Katie Beriont gave St. John Vianney a 10-9 edge, St. Rose held its rival scoreless for the next 9:10, an eternity in these types of defensive struggles.
Within that span, St. Rose ran off 11 straight points, starting with 3-pointer from Chambers and ending with the Monmouth-bound point guard sinking a driving pull up for a 20-10 cushion with 5:29 showing in the third quarter.
Fruitless on its first five attempts from behind the arc, St. John Vianney discovered its range. Gallagher ended the scoring drought with a 3-pointer and Brunori backed it with another trey to trim the deficit to 22-16 midway through the third.
That surge carried over to the final quarter. A 3-pointer from Gallagher sparked an 8-2 burst that Brunori capped with a putback to give St. John Vianney its last lead at 29-28 with 4:08 to play.
“They gave everything they could this year and I think we really maxed out what we were capable of doing,” said St. John Vianney coach Dawn Karpell, who turned in arguably the finest coaching performance of her career considering the Lady Lancers graduated four starters from last season’s 28-4 squad that reached the Tournament of Champions semifinal. “We were one basket shy of going to the state finals again in a year where we’re not even supposed to be in this game.”
Gregg Lerner covers girls basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @gregglerner