By Tom Robinson
SCRANTON – The NEPA Elite girls teams enjoyed the comforts of playing at home on the Riverfront Sports courts for three straight weekends.
Demanding competition and shooting struggles conspired to make for some uncomfortable moments for the NEPA Elite Clark 17U girls team in the last of those three weekends.
All four of the team’s games in the Hoop Group’s Scranton Jam Fest were decided late – by margins of six points or less – with two coming down to the final two seconds, once in regulation and once in overtime.
It was a distinct contrast from the previous two weekends when the team won by an average of more than 28 points with each game decided by at least 15.
With the shots not falling, NEPA Elite Clark still managed to win its first three games, extending its season winning streak to 12, before losing the final game of Pool A on a basket with 1.8 seconds left against New York Havoc Blue.
“I think we’ve done a really good job overall being able to shoot the ball throughout the season and, interestingly enough, in our own gym this past weekend, we really struggled to do that,” coach Kevin Clark said. “We wanted to reiterate to the girls that there are other ways to affect the game when your shots are not falling.
“I was incredibly impressed with how they continued to share the basketball and how they were able to respond to the other teams’ physicality, which allowed us to execute down the stretch and pull out those three victories.”
NEPA Elite was in position to finish another perfect weekend until Melanie Hoyt’s putback lifted New York Havoc Blue to a 52-51 victory.
“Although the fourth one slipped away from us a little bit, we never back down and that was a very good New York Havoc team,” Clark said.
NEPA Elite rallied from an 11-point, second-half deficit and led in overtime before New York came up with the game’s final basket.
“Our defense has kind of been the key to all of our success, holding teams to such low-scoring games,” said Clark, whose team is 14-2 overall in its first season.
The defense was highlighted by Ciera Toomey’s clutch play down the stretch.
The 6-foot-3 rising sophomore from Dunmore had four blocked shots in the final 10 seconds of regulation in the four close games, including two to protect a 44-42 victory over 1 on None Virginia. The game’s final shot was a 3-point attempt at the win that Toomey raced out to the arc to deflect.
“She has such a knack for being around the basketball,” Clark said. “She uses her length in a positive way. She has such control over herself as an athlete that she understands how to use it to an advantage.”
Toomey led the team on both ends of the floor, scoring 45 points and blocking 13 shots.
Rachael Rose, a Scranton Prep senior who committed to a National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I scholarship from the University of South Carolina Upstate earlier in the week, added 40 points and led the team in both rebounds (17) and assists (17).
Skylar Bianchi led the team with seven offensive rebounds. The Valley View senior also was the team’s third-leading scorer in the event with 22 points.
Abington Heights senior Clair Marion scored 21 points and led the team with 8 steals.
The team won three of four despite shooting just 25.7 percent on 3-pointers and 41.1 percent overall, down from its season percentages of 37.1 percent from beyond the arc and 43.9 percent overall.
A recap of the team’s games in the Scranton Jam Fest:
NEPA Elite 44, 1 on None Virginia 42
Toomey’s second late block was controlled by Rose with less than a second remaining to secure the victory.
They combined on more than the last defensive play.
Toomey scored a game-high 10 points, all in the first half.
Rose had nine points and four assists.
Moriah Murray, a junior from Dunmore, scored the game-winning basket on a drive to break a 42-42 tie with 2:23 left. She finished with seven points, five rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots.
Old Forge senior Olivia Ciullo also grabbed five rebounds.
Three straight 3-pointers allowed 1 on None Virginia to take a 15-12 lead.
Toomey had five points in a 15-0 run to a 27-15 lead.
When NEPA Elite made just 3 of its first 15 shots to begin the second half, 1 on None moved within a point.
Maria Belardi, a junior from Scranton Prep, and Murray hit 3-pointers on consecutive possessions for a 42-37 lead with 3:40 left, before 1 on None created the only tie of the second half.
NEPA Elite 49, Germantown (Md.) Lady Panthers 43
Rose scored 13 points, grabbed 5 defensive rebounds and dished out 4 assists in Saturday’s second win.
Toomey added 10 points and 3 blocked shots.
Kaeli Romanowski, a junior guard from Western Wayne, chipped in with seven points.
Marion, who made five steals, and Bianchi scored six each.
Rose led a 14-2 run in the first half and NEPA Elite held the Lady Panthers scoreless for 5:33 to begin the second half.
Germantown made its first three 3-point attempts to take a four-point lead five minutes into the game.
Rose had six points and three assists and Murray hit a 3-pointer in the run that produced a 23-15 lead.
NEPA Elite 50, Long Island Renegades 44
Marion scored nine points and six teammates added at least five for NEPA Elite in the Sunday morning win in the game between teams that had gone 2-0 Saturday.
The game was tied, 44-44, before Toomey, Ciullo and Rose each scored two points in the game-ending, 6-0 run.
Rose’s two free throws with 12.6 seconds left matched the game’s biggest lead and put the margin at six for the first time since 10:30 remained in the first half.
Toomey finished with eight points and three blocked shots. Rose had seven points, four assists and two steals.
Ciullo, Belardi and Bianchi scored six points while Murray had five.
New York Havoc Blue 52, NEPA Elite 51
Toomey scored 17 points and Belardi’s 3-pointer with 30 seconds left in overtime gave NEPA Elite the lead until New York’s late game-winner.
Murray’s shot from beyond midcourt at the final buzzer went off the backboard and rim.
The teams finished tied for first place in the pool with 3-1 records.
New York seemed in control with a 41-30 lead.
Ciullo started a comeback with two straight baskets. Rose scored on a 3-pointer and assisted two other scores in an 11-0 run to tie the game.
Romanowski hit a 17-footer, then Belardi’s drive off a steal created the tie.
Toomey hit a 3-pointer for the first NEPA Elite lead of the second half, 44-43, with 2:17 left.
Belardi again turned a steal into a basket for a 48-46 lead with 51 seconds left in regulation.
The Havoc tied the game at the foul line, then had regulation’s last possession.
Toomey blocked a shot, her third of the game, with 4.4 seconds left. New York got the ball under the basket after the block, but NEPA Elite’s defense did not allow another shot, extending the game to overtime.
Rose finished with 12 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals.
Belardi had seven points, four rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots.
Marion chipped in with six points and a team-high eight rebounds while Murray had five assists.