The NEPA Elite Clark 17U girls team proved it was up to the challenge of facing the best competition the 11th Grade Division Pool A of the Summer Tip Off had to offer.
In its debut performance last week, playing July 24-26 at Spooky Nook Sports in Manheim Township, Lancaster County, the Clark team faced a steady stream of National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I prospects and won four of its five games.
NEPA Elite boasts its own Division I player in Bucknell commit Cecelia Collins and the day after the opening weekend was over, two of her teammates received offers. Rachael Rose picked up her first offer, from the University of South Carolina Upstate and Moriah Murray got her second with St. Joseph’s joining Philadelphia rival Drexel.
Rose, Murray and Collins scored and set each other up, finishing as the team’s top three scorers and the three assist leaders.
“We’re heavy on our ball screens and that opens up so many different options,” said Kevin Clark, the founder of the AAU program based out of Riverfront Sports in Scranton and head coach of the team. “Our girls do a good job of creating for each other, which is what leads to the open 3s.”
Ciera Toomey, a 6-foot-2 rising sophomore from Dunmore, followed them in the scoring column and led the team in rebounds and blocked shots.
“Ciera Toomey did an outstanding job the whole weekend,” Clark said of the team’s youngest player.
Skylar Bianchi, a senior forward from Valley View, was right behind Toomey in rebounds.
Kaeli Romanowski, a junior point guard from Western Wayne was the top offensive producer off the bench while fellow reserve Clair Marion, a senior at Abington Heights, was the overall team leader in steals.
Rose was the team’s most accurate shooter, hitting well over 50 percent from the floor and on 3-pointers as well as better than 80 percent from the line. The senior point guard from Scranton Prep led the team with more than 12 points per game.
Collins, Murray, Toomey and Romanowski all provided between 5 ½ and 8 ½ points per game.
Collins, another senior at Scranton Prep, showed off her all-around game, leading the team in assists, finishing second in scoring and steals and tied for third in assists.
Murray, a junior at Dunmore, led he team in 3-pointers made and was third in both assists and steals.
NEPA Elite took a team approach to rebounding.
Bianchi, Collins, Rose, Marion and Murray all finished within less than one rebound per game of team leader Toomey.
Maria Belardi, Claire Dougherty and Olivia Ciullo joined them in each grabbing at least 10 total rebounds on the weekend. Scranton Prep’s Belardi and Lake-Lehman’s Dougherty are both juniors. Ciullo is a senior at Old Forge.
Rose, Collins, Murray, Toomey and Ciullo were all active in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association state playoffs when they were halted by the coronavirus March 13. The others on the team had been away from competitive basketball longer.
“I think the girls were especially excited because we got to get back on the floor,” Clark said. “The bracket that we were in, the competition level was high.
“I think they were hyped up for that and they responded very well to the teams that we were playing.”
Public health and social distancing rules that drastically limited spectators, placed only some of the courts in use and reduced the times that teams were in the building while not playing. That reduced the crowds at each game and the buzz in the building throughout the weekend.
For the most part, it was up to the competitiveness of the players to create the excitement.
The team’s finale, a single game on Sunday between two of the event’s top teams from the first two days, sparked a little extra curiosity from other teams in each program as well as teams they had faced.
A look back at the first five games:
NEPA Elite 45, Empire State Blue Flames-Nick 34
NEPA Elite trailed at halftime, but scored the first 14 points of the second half to win its debut.
Rose, Collins and Toomey each had two baskets in the opening flurry to erase a two-point deficit.
Bianchi’s putback put NEPA Elite ahead.
The Blue Flames managed just four points in the first 11:51 of the second half.
After the only Empire State basket in that stretch, Rose answered with a 3-pointer and Collins scored for a 38-23 lead with 6:30 left.
Rose had seven points in the 19-2 start to the half.
The Blue Flames ran off six points to get within 40-31 with 1:58 left, but Marion and Nanticoke senior Lauren Casey worked inside for consecutive baskets to lock up the win.
NEPA Elite 58, Comets-Genther GUAA 42
Murray started 5-for-6 from 3-point range to lead the way with 15 points.
Accurate shooting was a big part of the comfortable win.
NEPA Elite shot 57.1 from the floor, with Murray, Rose, Romanowski, Toomey, Collins, Bianchi and Dougherty all making at least half their shots.
While NEPA Elite was going 7-for-13 on 3-pointers, it was holding Comets-Genther to 2-for-14 (14.3 percent).
Rose was 6-for-7 with 12 points along with a team-high 4 assists.
Romanowski added nine points.
Belardi had two steals while Toomey had a steal and blocked shot to lead the defensive effort.
Books & Basketball 17U 3SSB 46, NEPA Elite 35
An off-shooting game was costly to NEPA Elite in the Saturday loss to Books & Basketball.
NEPA Elite, which otherwise shot better than 45 percent from long range while hitting more than six 3-pointers per game, managed just 2-for-16 on 3-pointers against the Adidas-sponsored team from Merchantville, N.J.
Romanowski was the top scorer during the loss with nine points. Rose added eight.
Ciullo grabbed a team-high six rebounds and Marion made three steals.
NEPA Elite 50, New Jersey Freedom 35
NEPA Elite went right back out on the court Saturday, following its only loss, and took the lead from the start.
Although Rose scored the first five points and NEPA Elite never trailed, it still needed a second-half offensive burst to take control of the game.
NEPA Elite ran off 13 straight points in less than four minutes to hit the midway point in the second half with a 40-26 lead.
Murray sparked the run, capping it with consecutive 3-pointers after she had made a steal in the backcourt and assisted a 3-pointer by Rose.
NEPA Elite held New Jersey to 14 second-half points and the lead never got under 12 the rest of the way.
With Murray and Rose each going 2-for-2 and Cecelia Collins going 1-for-2, NEPA Elite shot 5-for-6 on 3-pointers in the second half to finish the game at 9-for-14 (64.3 percent).
Rose finished with 13 points and 5 rebounds, both of which led the team. She was 5-for-6 from the floor, making all three of her 3-point attempts.
Murray added nine points, four assists and three steals.
Collins chipped in with eight points and Romanowski had seven.
NEPA Elite 59, GTS Fusion 52
Rose, Collins and Toomey each scored in double figures and made other contributions Sunday, allowing the team to wrap up the opening weekend with its most impressive victory.
GTS Fusion entered the game with a 4-0 record by a combined margin of 106 points, including a 12-point win over the Books & Basketball squad that had handed NEPA Elite its only loss.
The Falls Church, Va. team, featuring Gatorade National Player of the Year Azzi Fudd, however, could not break away from NEPA Elite.
GTS Fusion held the lead for the game’s first 20-plus minutes, except for two times when it was tied briefly. The lead peaked at 18-11 midway through the first half.
NEPA Elite moved in front for the first time with a 12-2 run to a 36-33 lead with 11:16 remaining in the game.
Rose, Toomey and Murray all had 3-pointers in the run.
After Rose’s 3-pointer, GTS Fusion scored, then Toomey began and ended a streak of nine straight points, hitting a 3-pointer from the left corner and converting in transition off a Collins feed.
GTS regained the lead midway through the half before another 12-2 run put NEPA Elite ahead to stay.
Marion started it with a free throw, then a steal and layup for a 43-42 lead.
Rose hit a 3-pointer, assisted two baskets, then capped the run by scoring off a long in-bounds pass from Collins.
Rose scored a game-high 19 points, along with 4 rebounds and 4 assists.
Collins had 13 points, 5 rebounds, a game-high 8 assists and a team-high 3 steals.
Toomey shot 4-for-5 to finish with 11 points and team-highs of 6 rebounds and 2 blocked shots.
Murray added eight points and four rebounds.