By Brian Deakyne
POINT PLEASANT – All season, Rumson-Fair Haven has scratched and clawed its way to a big game, but could never finish.
In December, the Lady Bulldogs reached the WOBM Christmas Classic Final before falling to Point Boro. In February, Rumson reached the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinal where it lost to Middletown South.
So on Tuesday, when another big game presented itself – perhaps the biggest — Rumson-Fair Haven was ready.
The third-seeded Lady Bulldogs avenged the WOBM Christmas Classic final, beating top-seeded Point Boro in the Central Jersey, Group II sectional final, 53-49, in overtime. It’s the 14th sectional championship under head coach George Sourlis and the first since 2009.
“We’ve had two years where we’ve been right there, been right there, and just didn’t get it over the top,” Sourlis said. “Tonight we were able to get it over the top and what a great feeling for them.”
Rumson was led by sophomore forward Grace Stant, who finished with a team-high 16 points and 11 rebounds. Stant went toe-to-toe with Point Boro senior guard Kelly Hughes, who recently became the all-time Shore Conference points leader with 2,587.
“She’s awesome. It’s so exhausting guarding her and then having to play offense and go back on defense and guard her again,” Stant said of Hughes. “You know she’s going to get her points, it’s just about holding her to a certain amount of points she can get and holding the rest of the team as well.”
Rumson held a lead on Point Boro throughout the game, but, as expected, the Lady Panthers came fighting back in the second half, due in large part to Hughes’ game-high 25 points.
After a back-and-forth first quarter that witnessed both teams trading leads, the Bulldogs held for a final shot with well under a minute to go and the teams tied at 43, but Stant’s potential-game winning three-pointer missed the rim, sending the game to overtime.
Point Boro held a 41-40 lead late in the fourth quarter, but freshman guard Nicole Morris banged home a three-pointer to put Rumson on top, 43-41. Hughes answered right back with a pull-up jumper to tie the game at 43, setting up the Bulldogs’ final play.
“As a freshman, down 41-40 with time running out near the end of regulation, she comes down and buries a three and it just goes to show you that when you play a lot of basketball, your talent takes over and her talent took over in that key spot,” Sourlis said of Morris. “Her ball-handling and her ability to get the ball out of traffic and into good spots when she was on the verge of being trapped – I thought that was even bigger than her shot that she made.”
Overtime consisted of more back-and-forth action. The Lady Panthers took the biggest lead of the extra session after Hughes converted a three-point-play, making the free throw after being fouled to give Point Boro a 49-47 lead.
But, Rumson came right back.
After a steal, Stant led a fast break down the floor where she hit a leaner to give the Bulldogs a 51-49 lead. Rumson iced the game a minute later, when sophomore Sam Sabino hit both ends of a one-and-one to give the Lady Bulldogs the 53-49 lead with 13.3 seconds left.
“I just want to congratulate Point Boro on four awesome years; I mean Kelly Hughes is one of the greatest players that has ever come through these parts,” Sourlis said. “It’s sad to see a great player walk away, but at the same time, for our kids, I’m really proud of them and really happy for them. Our kids battled and it was an awesome high school game. Unfortunately, someone had to lose.”
Point Boro had its chances in the final minute. Hughes stole an in-bounds pass with 31 seconds left, trailing 51-49, but she stepped out of bounds after gaining possession. On the possession before that, Hughes missed a lay-up and the rebound resulted in a jump ball, favoring Rumson.
But, the sectional championship is well deserved for Rumson, who lost to Shabazz in the sectional final in 2011 and fell to Point Boro in the sectional quarterfinal last season.
Even more so, this Rumson team features just three seniors in Jess Harvey, Hope LoPresti and Hannah Miller.
“I’m so proud and happy for our seniors,” Sourlis said. “Those three kids would have been the only kids to walk out of here without a banner in maybe 20-some-odd years, so I’m proud and happy for those three seniors.”
“It’s awesome. For our seniors, this is their first one, and they’ve been with us the whole year and they’ve been so supportive and so excited and we just really wanted to win it for them,” Stant said.
Aside from Stant, Hannah Miller added 13 points and six rebounds for Rumson. Sophomore forward Emma Miller posted six points and eight rebounds and Sabino put up nine points and five rebounds.
Senior forward Kerry Malleck was the only other Panthers’ player to finish in double figures, adding 10 points. Senior Lauren Hughes put up eight points and had 11 rebounds, and senior Jessica Macchi added a game-high 12 rebounds for Point Boro.
“We’re about championships and the fact that we lost in two finals over the last three years. No apologies there, but we played some really good teams, but there are no moral victories this time of year – you either get it done or you don’t – and three years running we hadn’t. But today we did and I’m really proud of them,” Sourlis said.