TOMS RIVER – The Middletown South girls basketball team almost blew a big lead in Sunday’s NJSIAA Group III championship game against Old Tappan at Pine Belt Arena, but the Lady Eagles settled down and won their first ever state girls title with a 50-42 victory.
South was seeded fifth in the Tournament of Champions, which began this week and played fourth seeded and Group II champion Franklin Township Tuesday.
“I can’t describe it right now,” said senior guard Angela DeBartolome. “It was such an accomplishment that we’ll always remember it.”
When South’s Alexandra Balsamo dropped in a three-pointer early in the final quarter to put South up, 40-23, it looked like the title would be a formality, but Old Tappan had other ideas and made a run that put a scare into the South fans.
The Knights, after missing 18 of their first 20 shots in the first half, when it fell behind, 25-5, scored nine straight points, six of them by Ariana Chipolone, the game’s high scorer with 17 points, to cut the South lead to 40-32.
“They never quit out there,” said DeBartolome. “You have to give them credit for that, but we stayed poised.”
South’s Haley Dalonzo broke the streak with a jumper, but Alexie Piccinich made a free throw and Emily Crevani dropped in a three-pointer to make it 42-36.
Balsamo and Crevani swapped a pair of free throws, but South’s Madison Curtis put the lead back to eight with a layup at the 1:14 mark. Chipolone answered with a jumper, but two free throws by DeBartolome with 43 seconds to go clinched it.
“It’s the resiliency and never say die attitude of the team,” said South coach Tom Brennan. “We overcame a lot of adversity this season. This was a physical game and Chipolone killed us.
“If we get our passes to the open space, we are pretty good,” he said. “But, if we drive into their defense, we can be bad.”
“This means everything to us,” said South junior Stephanie Karcz, who led the way with 16 points, 16 rebounds, three assists and five steals before fouling out with 2:07 left.
“We knew that if we put all our energy into this, we could reach our goal,” she noted. “In a lot of our games, we would get a big lead and then think we could rest, but we knew that we had to get the job done.”
“I’m proud of everything we accomplished,” she said. “We lost one of our best players, Jill Falvey, with a torn ACL just before the season. She is the most positive person I know, but it was difficult for her to sit on the bench.
“Jill was a big part of the team,” said Brennan, “She is a senior and when you seen her lose a season, it crushes you, but she stayed a part of the team with us and I think the team responded.”
–By Jim Hintelmann
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