EDISON — When a team has a star player capable of scoring at will, that team is never out of the game.
Saturday afternoon the Wardlaw-Hartridge High School girls basketball team was rescued by its star, Taylor Gerhart, who dragged her squad out of a 10-point halftime hole to a 53-47 victory over Perth Amboy in the preliminary round of the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament.
The 23rd-seeded Rams advance to Monday’s first round against 10th-seeded Woodbridge.
Gerhart led all scorers with 30 points, including 21 in the second half, when Wardlaw-Hartridge used an 18-6 run to erase the halftime deficit and take its first lead since early in the second quarter with 6:30 to play. Gerhart made all 13 of her free throws in the game, including 8-8 in the final eight minutes, to go with 12 rebounds, five steals and three assists.
“I feel like in games like this, where there’s more pressure on us, it’s easier to play well,” Gerhart said. “Once I’m into the game, nothing else matters and I just play.”
In the third quarter, Gerhart out-scored Perth Amboy by herself, 8-6, knocking down a long 3-pointer and converting all three free throws after being fouled behind the arc. But the Rams still trailed by five heading to the fourth quarter, before Joanna Brautigan gave Gerhart and Wardlaw-Hartridge a boost.
“Joanna is always a big rebounder for us. Sometimes she gets into foul trouble, so we just try to keep her on the floor,” Wardlaw-Hartridge head coach Mike Howell said. “And when she gets into a rhythm, she’s really good for us inside and she’s a good free throw shooter. That was a big help and she fought really hard. She always seems to be around the ball.”
Brautigan scored seven of her 10 points in the fourth quarter, adding five rebounds in the final eight minutes to help take some of the pressure off of Gerhart. As a team, Wardlaw-Hartridge made just 5-14 shots in the stanza, but Brautigan and Gerhart knocked down 11-14 free throws.
“The difference for us today was just having everybody step up,” Gerhart said. “We started talking on defense and we really got into it. Our problem this year has been that we haven’t wanted it enough, but we really came out in the second half and stepped it up. Having Joanna grab some rebounds and put them back was huge.”
Wardlaw-Hartridge opened the fourth quarter on a 12-2 run to put 26th-seeded Perth Amboy away for good. The Panthers looked like they’d spring the upset early on, when Desirae Rivera went off for 13 points in the second quarter. The freshman guard finished with 22 points, including three 3-pointers, to go along with six rebounds.
But only two other players scored for Perth Amboy and Howell said his defense locked down in the second half to earn the win.
“We put pressure on their guards, which was key,” he said. “Desirae carried them in that second quarter, so we knew that would happen. But we locked down in the second half and we didn’t underestimate Perth Amboy. They play in a tough division and they’re a good team.”
Oldania Perez scored 14 points and added nine rebounds and Sam Nunez chipped in 10 points for the Panthers, who scored just 16 points in the final 16 minutes.
With the win, Wardlaw-Hartridge will get a chance to take out two Red Division teams in three days, when they travel to Woodbridge. To keep this run alive, Gerhart believes it has to be about more than her.
“Everybody has to contribute; it’s a five-person sport,” she said. “We can’t have just one player or even two play well. But as long as we play defense, we have a chance.”