SOUTH RIVER — With the clock ticking down in overtime and her team trailing, Lianne Cifrodelli stepped up and made the biggest shot of her life.
Cifrodelli canned a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 31 seconds left to put the Metuchen High School girls basketball team ahead 44-43, erasing a seven-point deficit in the final two minutes of the extra session.
Katharine Chura knocked down a free throw with 3.5 seconds left and the sixth-seeded Bulldogs emerged with a 45-43 victory over top-seeded South River in the NJSIAA Central Group I Final in front of a raucous overflow crowd at South River High School.
“When I got he ball, I was looking around, seeing who else was there, and I realized there was nobody right in front of me so I threw it up and hoped it went in and it did,” Cifrodelli said after the game. “It was like slow-motion, watching the ball go towards the hoop and it felt like such a long time, but it was such a great feeling.”
The Bulldogs, who will now play in the Group I semifinals Thursday at Deptford High School, had a 34-25 lead with 4:21 left in regulation, but South River refused to go away. The Rams went on an 11-2 run to close the fourth quarter, tying the game on a crazy 3-point play by Alyssa Barry, who was fouled while driving through the lane and banked in an off-balance runner.
South River, with all of the momentum, opened the extra four minutes on a 7-0 run, capped off by a Barry layup after Gabby Harris blocked Cassie Smith on the other end.
“We just had to stay focused and we had to go on another run,” Cifrodelli said.
Cifrodelli knocked down a long 3-pointer and Smith hit a pair of free throws to close the gap to 43-41 with one minute left.
“[Lianne’s first 3-pointer in overtime] got everyone hyped and we just had to focus on defense,” Smith said.
Cifrodelli scored a game-high 17 points – with 15 of those points coming in the second half and overtime – and added eight rebounds for the Bulldogs.
With 52.7 seconds left, Metuchen earned possession on a jump ball inside the paint on defense, setting up Cifrodelli to give the Bulldogs their fourth and final lead of the game.
Metuchen head coach Pat Mayo said that she told Smith – the team’s leading scorer – before the game that she needed her star to “take one for the team,” Tuesday night.
“Cassie knew this was going to be a box-and-one game and we asked her to take one for the team tonight, knowing she was going to be smothered on defense,” Mayo said. “But her teammates have been developing and had all the confidence in them and in the end, when it was rebound time, who came through for us? It was Cassie.”
Smith finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds, the final one coming with 11.3 seconds left in overtime to give Metuchen another possession and allow Chura to step to the line and clinch the victory.
A win for Metuchen did not seem like it would be the outcome once South River got out to that fast start in overtime, carrying over its momentum from regulation, with Barry and Harris leading the way. The duo scored 31 points for the Rams, with Harris scoring 16 and Barry adding 15.
“We’ve been a team of highs and lows all season. This is still a young team and that wave is something we need to do a better job of controlling, as we grow as a team,” South River head coach Mike Feaster said. “I thought we were going to ride it through overtime and we just gave up a couple of offensive rebounds that hurt us.”
Freshman Aleah Bass gave South River a double-double inside, scoring 10 points to go with 13 rebounds, as the team’s lone post-presence. She also had three blocks and two steals.