MONMOUTH JCT. — For the first time since 2001, the Bishop Ahr High School girls basketball team will play for the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament title, thanks to a convincing 41-35 victory over East Brunswick Monday night.
The 12th-seeded Trojans took the lead for good with 1:45 remaining in the third quarter and never looked back, knocking down clutch free throws in the final minutes to clinch the win.
Freshman Elle Cimilucca calmly made a pair of free throws with 1:32 remaining to push a three-point lead into a five-point one, providing a final bit of breathing room.
“This is tremendous. We have had teams that were more highly seeded and came up short. But this group, we got piled on early because we didn’t finish our schedule and we were seeded where we belong, but we got healthy and started playing the right way,” Bishop Ahr head coach Kevin Harper said. “The younger kids grew up and they started playing better. I had a vision and it just took a while for everything to come.”
The front-court duo of senior Brianna Foster and sophomore Jenna Harsh combined for 19 points and 20 rebounds, dominating the top-seeded Bears in the paint all night long.
“That’s a big part of what we do,” Harper said. “The outside shooting comes and goes but the inside game is consistent. I thought East Brunswick did a good job of leaning on the big kids inside and not making it easy for them, so a lot of credit to them. It took us a while to get it together this year but that’s what we lean on.”
Lauren Barlow led the Trojans with 13 points, connecting on 4-5 free throws in the game. As a team, Bishop Ahr shot 15-23 from the line.
Harsh continued her strong play since returning from a shoulder injury in Bishop Ahr’s second-to-last regular season game, posting 12 points and four rebounds. She had seven of her points in the second quarter, converting a key and-1 to give the Trojans a lead.
East Brunswick, which didn’t blow through 16th-seeded Metuchen or 24th-seeded South Amboy in its two prior GMCT games, got off to a good start Monday night, jumping out to an 11-10 lead after one quarter and only trailing by four at the half. But the Bears scored just 15 points in the second half, and committed five turnovers down the stretch.
Julia Simoes led East Brunswick with 10 points and Dayna Sclafani just missed a double-double with eight points and 11 rebounds, but the Bears shot 12-47 from the field and didn’t knock down enough jumpers to close the gap.
“We saw some film on them and we were worried about them driving-and-kicking and so we just tried to keep them on the perimeter and live and die with the threes,” Harper said. “But rebounding helps and we did a good job of limiting their second chances.”
The Trojans will face second-seeded Piscataway, a 62-48 winner over Monroe earlier Monday, in the GMCT final Thursday night at the Louis Brown Athletic Center at Rutgers, looking for their fourth county championship.
Having already seen Piscataway during the regular season — a 51-41 Chiefs victory on Jan. 11 — is something that should help Bishop Ahr, according to Harper.
“It’s so helpful to see someone the first time,” he said. “We’ve experienced it in their gym and that’s a big deal. When we won in 2001, we came through the Red Division. So I liken this run to that one. We’ve already played five Red Division teams this season, so it’s not going to be an ‘oh my gosh’ moment when we get on the floor.”