The West Morris High School girls basketball team is headed to the NJSIAA Group III final for the first time in school history.
Riding a career-high 38 points from senior forward Brielle Kelly, the Wolfpack defeated Northern Highlands 67-63 in the Group III semifinals Thursday at Ramapo High School.
West Morris will face Woodrow Wilson of Camden, which defeated Middletown South 51-50 in the other semifinal, on Sunday at the Pine Belt Arena in Toms River in the Group III final.
West Morris last advanced to the Group III semifinals in 2011, where the Wolfpack fell to Teaneck 90-48.
“We’re so excited because we just broke school history by getting this far because we’ve never done this before,” Kelly said. “It’s huge.”
The Wolfpack jumped out to a 19-14 lead after the first quarter and went up 21-16 with 6:53 to go in the first half. The Highlanders kept chipping away and took the lead, 26-24, on a basket by Madison Dunbar with 2:12 to left in the half.
A 3-pointer from senior guard Paige Burton gave West Morris the lead back at 28-26, but two free throws from Caroline Lovisolo tied the game at 28-28. Dunbar scored again with 23.1 seconds left for a 30-28 advantage, but a basket by Kelly evened it up once again. A buzzer-beater from Melissa Heath gave the Highlanders the 32-30 halftime lead.
“We just had to come out with the most momentum,” Burton said of West Morris’ plan at halftime. “We needed to come out with the most drive and be aggressive and not ever give up because we knew that if we played with the passion we’re capable of playing with, we can beat anyone.”
West Morris managed to get Heath in foul trouble early, which sent her to the bench with three fouls late in the second quarter, but Dunbar and Heath combined for 24 points in the first half.
“It definitely helped the first half and the last 30 seconds, when she was on the court it was a different game,” Burton said of Heath.
Northern Highlands kept the lead through most of the third quarter and the Wolfpack received all of its offense from Kelly. She was responsible for all 22 points in the quarter. With 1:40 left to play she tied the game at 49-49. Another basket from Heath put the Highlanders back up 51-49, but a 3-pointer from Kelly with 26.7 seconds left gave West Morris back the lead, 52-51.
The Highlanders retook the lead at 54-52 on a three-point play from Lovisolo with 7:22 to play and neither team scored a basket for nearly three minutes. Nicole Miko broke the streak with a basket to give Northern Highlands a 57-52 advantage with 4:42 left, but West Morris went on an 8-0 run thanks to five points from Burton to retake the lead at 60-57 with 2:07 remaining.
Northern Highlands scored again to get within one, 60-59, but from there Kelly was sent to the line three straight times and sank four of six free throws to give West Morris a 64-59 lead with 26.1 seconds left.
Dunbar scored again to get the Highlanders within three, 64-61, with 19.2 seconds left and Kelly again went to the line and sank both free throws to put the Wolfpack back up 65-61. A bucket with 6.7 seconds left pulled Northern Highlands back to within two, but Kelly was sent to the line one last time one second later and sank both shots for the 67-63 final.
“I’m so proud of her,” Burton said of Kelly. “With her foul shots especially with the pressure and she handled it so well, she kept so composed, she really helped us. It’s incredible, I feel blessed, I’m so happy.”
Along with her 38 points Kelly also pulled down 10 rebounds. Burton chipped in 13 points and five rebounds. Junior forward Sarah Singer had seven points and senior forward Kendall Ballotti had eight rebounds.