There were seven lead changes in the fourth quarter between the Shore and Metuchen girls basketball teams in the NJSIAA Central Group I semifinals on Saturday.
When junior forward Emily Reiser hit a pair of free throws to put Shore ahead by a point with 1:42 remaining, the sixth-seeded Blue Devils held on for good as Reiser scored nine of her team-high 20 points in the quarter in knocking off second-seeded and defending sectional champion Metuchen 49-47.
“These girls, from the time I’ve had them since they’ve been freshmen, they never stop, they never quit, and they will do anything I ask them to do,” said fifth-year Shore coach Dave Dudzinski.
Shore will play at top-seeded and one-loss Point Beach in the sectional final on Monday, the first sectional final appearance for the Blue Devils since 2003.
“Coming here at the end of the season, this is really the first time we’ve found our niche and we’re really working together and I think this is what brought us here,” said Reiser, who went 5-for-5 from the charity stripe in the fourth quarter and 9-for-9 in the game.
Reiser’s free throws with 1:42 left put Shore (11-15) ahead 45-44 after Liane Cifrodelli hit a 12-footer beforehand to give Metuchen a one-point edge.
Senior guard Gina Ruscil, who added 10 points, hit both ends of a 1-and-1 with 33.6 seconds left to put the Blue Devils up 47-44.
After Metuchen (18-8) junior forward Cassie Smith hit the second of two free throws with 22.7 seconds left, Claudia LaMarca, who finished with eight points, confidently knocked down a pair from the charity stripe with 14.4 seconds left to put Shore ahead 49-45.
Smith scored with 6.3 seconds to bring the Bulldogs within two and Metuchen was able to force a turnover on the inbounds, but a tie-up with 2.8 seconds resulted in Shore getting the ball on the possession arrow and they ran out the clock on the ensuing inbounds.
Smith was tremendous in the second half for Metuchen, when she scored 19 of her game-high 23 points after she had to sit the final 5:46 of the second quarter and first three-plus minutes of the third quarter with three fouls.
“For about the 12 minutes that (Smith) was in there in the second half, she took the team on her shoulders,” Metuchen coach Val Gazda said.
“There’s only so much you can do (to stop Smith),” Dudzinski said. “We knew where they were going with the ball, and we were doing our best to stop her. We just couldn’t.”
Senior guard Ashley Palmieri sat nearly that entire time frame as well for Metuchen, after she picked up her third foul with 5:25 left in the first half as the Bulldogs survived the stretch without them after trailing 23-19 at halftime.
“With Cassie and Ashley in foul trouble, the other kids stepped up and for it to be a four-point game at half, I give those guys a lot of credit,” Gazda said. “Shore is a very gutsy team and maybe they have what it takes to catch Point Beach on a bad day.”
Shore is hoping that bad day comes on Monday, as Point Beach, led by the duo of Katelynn Flaherty and Marina Mabrey, has won its two state games thus far by an average of 38 points.
“We have a day to plan and a day to go after them, we’ll see what we could do,” Dudzinski said. “It’s a sectional final; I don’t care who it’s against. It’s a great thing to be in, so we’re going to be ready.”