Under a different set of circumstances, the Rutgers Preparatory School girls basketball team’s season would have ended with a thud Wednesday night in the Prep B Tournament final.
But this isn’t just any year, and that was evident as 30th-year coach Mary Klinger stared at a group of defeated faces on the postgame bench and issued a reminder of the schedule for the rest of the week in preparation of Rutgers Prep’s maiden venture into the NJSIAA Tournament.
“We get to play another day, which is a great thing for the seniors because they have something to look forward to,” Klinger said after second-seeded Rutgers Prep lost 62-30 to top-seeded Newark Academy in the Prep B final. “When you lose, you want to at least lose with your best (effort) and that didn’t happen. I think we’re better than what we showed and I think as we move forward hopefully that will show.”
Rutgers Prep (12-7) had won eight of the last 10 Prep B titles, including six of the last seven and two straight, before watching upstart Newark Academy (21-2) capture its first. The eight-team tournament had served as the school’s statewide competition until it joined the NJSIAA prior to this academic year.
“I’m thrilled to death to be a part of it,” said Klinger, whose 10th-seeded team will visit seventh-seeded St. Rose at 4:30 p.m. on Feb. 27 in the Non-Public South B first round. “It’s something that is great for the school. For the kids to have the opportunity to play in a state tournament like that is a definite positive.”
Rutgers Prep, which had been to two straight Somerset County Tournament finals before losing in the quarterfinals this season, fell behind Newark Academy 18-8 before using an 11-0 run capped by Kim Thomas’ rare four-point play to pull within striking distance with five minutes left in the second quarter.
While it never surged in front, Rutgers Prep remained positive in the face of a 30-21 halftime deficit.
“At halftime we were very pumped up,” said sophomore guard Allison Girardi, who scored a team-high 12 points. “We were ready to compete. We were ready to win. We were ready to fight. The energy wasn’t a problem. We just couldn’t put it out and leave it on the court and it gave us a rough time.”
Newark Academy opened the third and fourth quarters on runs of 9-0 and 12-0, respectively, and turned the second half into a showcase for Jocelyn Willoughby. The powerful and athletic freshman forward finished with 22 points — including five of the first seven in the second half — and 10 rebounds.
“She is the real deal,” Klinger said. “She doesn’t play like a freshman. You can tell she has played a lot of basketball. She is a great player, and in championship games great players rise to the occasion.”
For Rutgers Prep, a lack of transition and interior offense made for overreliance on jump shots.
“We didn’t make shots and they did,” Klinger said. “I just felt that they came out a lot more aggressive.”
The final score came as a surprise given that Newark Academy needed overtime to beat fourth-seeded Pennington in the semifinals, but Girardi pointed to the defensive effort as a difference-maker. Only Group IV powerhouse Rancocas Valley scored more points against Rutgers Prep.
“There is no explanation not to have your head in the game,” Girardi said. “It was a tough loss. The seniors really wanted it and I feel bad for them because they’re leaving without a win.”