METUCHEN — For Sarah Ryan and the Bernards High School girls basketball team, overcoming adversity was key on Monday night in the Bulldog Holiday Tournament Final against host Metuchen. As the fouls began to pile up and slowing down Metuchen’s star Cassie Smith became increasingly difficult, Bernards looked to Ryan to emerge victorious.
En route to claiming Tournament MVP honors, Ryan scored 30 points and pulled down 11 rebounds, leading Bernards to a tough 56-44 victory. In the second half, when it looked like a lead was going to slip away from Bernards for good, Ryan rescued her team, scoring 19 of her points, with 12 of those coming at the free throw line.
“It was so important for us because we’re a team on the rise and we’re very excited to win tonight and be 2-2 this season. This boosts our confidence and we really needed this one tonight,” Ryan said. “I’m so excited for the rest of the season after what we did tonight.”
The Mountaineers were 21-for-32 from the line, with Ryan leading the way, going 12-for-15. Sara Whelan added 12 points and Lex Demartino chipped in eight, as Bernards evened its record and got first-year coach Sandy Whelan her first tournament title.
“I told the girls that this game was going to come down to who fouled the least,” Whelan said. “Fouls were going in favor of Metuchen and (Cassie) Smith and it seemed like every time we were in her area she went to the line. I told the girls that it was fine and we had to be disciplined. Once we got to the double-bonus I knew we were in good shape.”
Smith, who led Metuchen with 34 points (7-for-15 FG, 20-for-21 FT), went to the free-throw line 10 on different occasions and drew a double-team every time the Bulldogs got into their half-court set.
Ryan said that she and her teammates only learned how to play a box-and-one defense last week, but they executed it perfectly against Smith.
“It was a tough game overall; I’m used to the box-and-one, but when I get two people put on me at all times, it’s tough,” Smith said.
In the game’s opening 16 minutes, Smith got scored all but two of Metuchen’s points, converting 8 of 9 free throws in the first half, giving her 14 points at intermission. She continued to get to the line in the third quarter, when she went 10-for-10 and collected 16 points.
“I live on the line,” Smith said. “Free throws are crucial for us and we just needed someone else to step up and we would have been set tonight.”
But Ryan was there point-for-point, scoring 14 in the third and five more, all on free throws, in the fourth to keep Metuchen (1-3) at bay.
“Sarah was the floor leader today; she was composed and she didn’t force anything. Good things happen when the ball is in Sarah Ryan’s hands,” Whelan said.
Ryan picked up four fouls and briefly went to the bench at the start of the fourth quarter, but returned with 4:50 to go to help close it out.
The teams combined for 41 personal fouls and Whelan picked up a technical late in the third quarter, after which Smith hit four free throws to turn a 30-28 deficit into a 32-30 lead. But Bernards hung tough, getting through full-court pressure and finding open layups on the other end. The Mountaineers shot 17-for-40 from the field, while the Bulldogs converted just 12 of 49 shots.
“I was really proud of the girls’ composure, for a young team, they bought into the game plan and it paid off,” Whelan said.