Sarah Bozzo was thrust into a position that she may not be accustom to but was unknowingly promoting with each bucket she accumulated. It was one that Mountain Lakes coach Mike Killingsworth has been imploring her to explore and senior point guard Katie Reese was eager to encourage from the outset.
Bozzo seemed to be under the impression that her role, though appreciated, may be somewhat limited. The junior forward is a rugged defender in the post, willing to utilize her physicality through staunch resistance in the paint. She also is a prominent figure on the glass, routinely sealing off challengers on the boards with rigid boxouts.
The one thing Bozzo never really thought of herself as was a scorer but that may have all changed with one dominating breakthrough performance.
Whether converting feeds on the blocks or muscling her way underneath for putbacks, Bozzo cast a rather imposing presence in the low post on her way to a season-high 22 points as Mountain Lakes made the most of its notable size advantage to stave off Whippany Park for a 61-57 triumph on Thursday in Whippany.
“That definitely doesn’t normally happen,” said Bozzo, who entered the contest averaging 6.1 points a game but shot 8-of-10 from the floor, converted 6 of 9 from the line to go with 11 rebounds and formed a dominating interior duo alongside senior Ingrid Hermanson, who collected 14 points and 10 boards. “It’s a weird feeling. I definitely enjoyed it.”
She wasn’t alone in celebrating her effort.
“She has always been a tough rebounder and a tough defender,” Killingsworth said. “What we’ve been looking for is for her to score more. Be more of an offensive threat. I think sometimes the girls defer too much to Katie because she can score anytime, anywhere. They knew they had to take some of the responsibility off of Katie’s shoulders. And, then Katie did a great job making sure we got the ball inside.”
While Whippany Park (15-4) was looking primarily toward the perimeter for its offense (it shot 9 for 32 from behind the arc), Mountain Lakes was much more straightforward. Reese hinted at the direction less than three minutes into the contest when she cleared a defensive board, raced up the court but instead of completing the drive with one of her patented finishes, she slipped a dish to Bozzo for an early 8-4 lead.
“No matter whether it was scoring, getting a huge rebound or getting a stop, she was making big plays in clutch spots,” praised Reese, who had 13 points and a dozen rebounds. “Ingrid and Sarah are awesome working together and being physical inside.”
The physicality was a huge plus for Mountain Lakes, which racked up a sizable 42-24 rebounding advantage. Of that, 16 were reaped on the offensive side and six of those were instantly converted into putbacks, including four such baskets by Bozza.
Mountain Lakes continually steered the ball into the post and its assertiveness underneath put Whippany Park into early foul trouble. Three players were saddled with two fouls apiece in the first quarter yet it was able to overcome those obstacles to build a 27-26 halftime lead driven by 11 points from Olivia Dudley and three 3-pointers from Sara Boyadjis.
A foul shot by Sara Boyadjis to begin the fourth handed Whippany Park (15-4) its largest lead, 45-38, but it proved not big enough.
Mountain Lakes (14-4) fashioned a 9-3 tear fueled by seven points from Bozzo, including a three-point play and layup off a pass from Reese that drew the Lakers even at 53-53. Hermanson snapped the deadlock by hitting a free throw with 2:23 to go and Mountain Lakes 6 of 8 from the line over the closing stretch to secure the victory.
Mountain Lakes avenged a 55-41 setback to Whippany Park (15-4) on Jan. 13 and gained the inside track to the Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference, Liberty Division title. It finished 20 for 26 from the foul line while Whippany Park went 14 of 19.
“I thought a lot about changing to a different defense,” said Whippany Park coach Tom Wilson, who was denied in his bid for his 504th career victory, which would have surpassed former Mendham coach Fred Corona for the most in Morris County history. “Every time I thought about what defense we would go to, I realized that either Katie Reese would get open looks or that we would end up committing a foul. I didn’t want that to happen because we had kids in foul trouble the whole game.”
Olivia Dudley topped Whippany Park with 19 points and Lauren O’Connor scored 14 to go with 11 rebounds.
Gregg Lerner covers girls basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @GreggLerner