Senior guard Maja Sekulovska helped lead the Butler girls basketball team over Independence Division-rival Kinnelon, 49-34, on Thursday as the two teams met for the second time this season.
The Bulldogs (10-12) won the two-game series, having defeated the Colts in overtime 35-32 back on Jan. 18.
“Conference rivals are always tough, they know what you want to do, we know what they want to do,” Butler coach Jason Luciani said. “Steph (Finke) has been at Kinnelon for a lot of years, does a great job with the kids and you just do what you can. I prepare for them just like any other team, see what they’ve done to us in the past, they know what we’re going to try to do to them. They’re a great conference rival, they’re close, and it’s always fun when we play them.”
Butler started hot, scoring seven-straight points in the first 4 minutes, but the Colts (3-17) finished on a 7-0 run of their own to end the first quarter tied 7-7. In the second quarter, with the Bulldogs up 16-7, Kinnelon went on a 6-0 run to pull within three, 16-13, with 47 seconds left. Sekulovska went to the line twice and came away with two points to take an 18-13 lead, but senior Morgan Browning pulled the Colts within three with two free throws of her own to send the game to halftime with Butler up 18-15.
“The first time (we played) was really hard for us, when we came out we were down a lot and this time we went down into the locker room and coach told us that we need to step it up, states are coming up, stop with the turnovers because we’re a fast team, take fast breaks,” said Sekulovska, who scored a game-high 15 points.
Kinnelon tried to keep it close at the start of the third quarter, but Butler kept pulling away and managed an eight-point lead, 28-20, with 3:39 to play. Marissa Jacobia scored to get the Colts within 28-22, but sophomore forward Amber Haslett scored four-straight points for the Bulldogs to take a 32-22 lead with 1:24 left. Junior Kate Coppa went to the line for the Colts and sank both to pull within eight, but Sofia Martini scored with 13.4 seconds left to give Butler back a 10-point lead, 34-24.
In the fourth quarter the Bulldogs really started to apply pressure. Browning hit a 3-pointer to open the quarter and cut the lead to 34-27, but from there Butler outscored the Colts 11-2 and took a 45-29 lead with 2:11 left in the game.
“To shut them down what we did was we have a really good defensive team and we kind of struggle on offense, so on defense we did a few different presses, we did a few different things,” Sekulovska said. “Mainly defense is what keeps us in games and we saw that we were giving them problems with our defense so we just went to a full-court press and it helped us win the game.”
Coppa went to the line twice and managed two points and Browning hit a 3 with 1:20 left, but sophomore forward Marlene Arabia sank four free throws as the game wore down to put it out of reach, 49-34.
Coppa scored a team-high 12 points for the Colts and Browning chipped in 10. Haslett scored 12 points for the Bulldogs. The game was incredibly physical and both teams had a number of points come from the free throw line. Kinnelon made 12-of-21 free throws while Butler made 15-of-26.
“It was kind of sloppy, everybody was like out of control, both teams just being physical, playing hard basketball, so that’s our world, that’s where we live,” Luciani said of the physical play. “The sloppier it is the better it usually is for us, that’s nothing we’re not used to. We were real strong, they were trying to be physical with us and foul us, so we were strong with the ball, being patient, we were kind of protecting the ball there and doing a nice job with that.”
Butler will continue its season in the state tournament as the No. 7 seed in North 1 Group I with an opening-round game at home against No. 10 Wood-Ridge on Tuesday.