Pascack Valley wins first state title since '08

Monday, March 13, 2017

Brianna Smith scored 11 of her 16 points after halftime for Pascack Valley, which held off Ocean City, 48-45, to win the Group 3 state championship for the first time since 2008.

TOMS RIVER – This one was not about any one play in any one situation. In fact, Pascack Valley head coach Jeff Jasper could not even remember that specifics of the late game situations that saw his team fighting to hold its lead down the stretch of the Group 3 state final played on Sunday at the Pine Belt Arena.

“I have no idea what happened. From a basketball standpoint I am tuned into to saying, ‘How come we can’t guard this kid, who is going to keep her out of the lane, how are we going to run this handoff, how are we not going to turn it over, how are we going to spread the floor?’ Those are things I am thinking about,” said Jasper. “The actual things that occurred? I don’t really remember them.”

Luckily, there is plenty of video around to go back and relive the specific moments, but here is a cheatsheet: Pascack Valley, which led by as many as 10 points in the fourth quarter, let Ocean City get as close as a single point three different times in the final three minutes of the game, but responded each time. Brianna Smith made both ends of a one-and-one with 31 seconds left and Cerena Dunkel did the same with nine seconds to play and the Indians survived a late 3-point attempt that would have tied it.

When all was said and done, Jasper could be seen sprinting off the sidelines in celebration of his team’s 48-45 victory, his program’s sixth state championship and its first since 2008 when it beat Rumson-Fair Haven in the very same building. The metaphor du’jour from the green and gold is that of the train; call it the Pascack Valley Line.

“When the state tournament began we said, ‘We are a train. We are one a track and each time we move on we are looking for the new station that is right ahead of us,” said Jasper. “Who is on board? Everyone is on board and we are picking up steam so every time we went through, we said ‘Next station.’ Winning today, it was this train is bound for glory.”

Alexis Paone scored six straight points in the fourth quarter to get Ocean City to within 42-41 with 3:17 to play.

Glory would come, but not so easily as was to be expected against an Ocean City team that had just one loss against it coming into the final. The Raiders did not have the lead for long (just 2:23 in the whole game) or even at all after Pascack Valley’s Kelly Smith scored off an inbounds play with 29 seconds left in the first quarter, but they did have grit and they hung in there.

Both teams had to work out the jitters in the opening moments. After 4:42 of game time, the score was tied at 2. Grace Sacco’s conventional 3-point play with 2:43 left in the first quarter gave Ocean City its biggest lead of the game. Brianna Smith scored inside for PV nine seconds later and then neither team scored again until Smith’s bucket gave the Indians a 6-5 lead to close the first period.

Pascack Valley pushed the pace a little bit more to its liking in the second quarter and opened it with a 10-2 run that was capped by Kelly Petro’s pull-up jumper, which put the Indians up 16-7. Ocean City recovered by scoring five of the next seven points to draw to within 18-12 at the break.

The flow of the game remained unchanged in the third quarter and PV took a crack at pulling away only to be tracked down by the Raiders. A 5-0 run powered by Petro and Toriana Tabasco baskets plus a Brianna Wong free throw put the Indians up 30-22 before Ocean City scored six of the next nine points to keep it to a five-point deficit, 33-28, heading into the fourth quarter.

It was in the fourth quarter of PV’s state semifinal win over Sommerville on Thursday that junior Cerena Dunkel established herself as a late-game dagger thrower and she was at it again. She scored five points in 58 seconds to give the Indians their largest lead of the game, 40-30, with 6:00 to play and every possession for Ocean City thereafter became a must-score situation.

Cerina Dunkel scored 7 points, grabbed two rebounds and had an assist all in the fourth quarter for Pascack Valley, which is now 30-1 heading into the Tournament of Champions against Franklin.

“It’s unbelievable. I didn’t think I had it in me, but every time I go in the game I go in with the attitude that I just have to do the best for my team,” said Dunkel, who came off the bench to score 10 points in the final 8:01 of the game against Sommerville and scored all 7 of her points in the fourth quarter on Sunday. “It just blows my mind that we are even here right now.”

But to get there, to the victorious postgame interview that is, PV still had some work to do as Ocean City scrambled its way back again. Grace Sacco buried a 3-pointer to kick off an 11-2 run that took only 2:28 complete. Alexis Paone scored the six straight points of that spurt and her second chance lay-up with 3:17 to play had the Raiders right back to within 42-41.

Wong and Sacco then traded baskets before a potential game-changer happened with just over two minutes left. Still trailing by a single point, Ocean City’s Michaela Baker drew a charge that fouled out Tabasco and gave the Raiders the ball back with a chance to take the lead.

Pascack Valley forced a miss on a jumper on the other end and Dunkel grabbed the rebound to restore order and the Indians then worked a flawless final minute-plus. PV held the ball from the 1:19 mark until taking a timeout with 38 seconds to go and then Brianna Smith, who also was at her best in the second half, made both ends of the one-and-one. Sacco made her two at the other end, Dunkel answered and PV survived through Ocean City’s last-ditch 3 to advance to the Tournament of Champions where they were given the No. 5 seed and a first round matchup against No. 4 and Group 4 champion Franklin on Tuesday (weather permitting) in Toms River.

“They were very good competition and we knew we had to raise our game because they had a totally different style of play, a slower pace. We worked together as a team and we made shots.” said Brianna Smith, who made four 3-pointers in the game, three of them in the third quarter. “We came all this way to win and we did not want to go back home, after all of this effort, as a loser.”

Grace Sacco scored 13 points for Ocean City, which finished the season with a 30-2 record.

At this stage of the season there really are no losers, certainly not a team like Ocean City, which won its second straight sectional title last week and finished the season with a 30-2 record. Paone (21 points) and Sacco (13 points) combined to score 24 of the Raiders’ 33 second half points and scored 13 of their team’s 17 in the fourth quarter. Baker finished with 7, Sadie Ford had 5 and Tori Rolls had the other two points for Ocean City, which was 9 of 14 as a team from the free throw line.

Brianna Smith, who scored all of her 14 points in the Sommerville win in the second half, scored 11 of her team-high 16 points after halftime on Sunday. PV did not have another double digit scorer, but instead got contributions from everyone it ran out there. Wong finished with 9 points, Dunkel scored all 7 of hers in the final seven minutes and Kelly Smith also scored 7, including all six of her team’s first quarter points. Petro netted 5 and Tabasco and Shannon Culloo, split the other four points for Pascack Valley, which improved to 30-1 on the season that has at least one more game left on the schedule.

“They bring me great joy every day,” said Jasper. “Yes this was a tough game. Ocean City is wonderfully coached, a beautiful team, but my kids are just joyful to be with every day. When somebody says to me, ‘Jasper, how is it going?’ You know my answer…I am living the dream.”