The Hoop Group had a new top-level offering for the girls teams that fill its events each year just in time for an emerging new program out of Riverfront Sports in Scranton.
The NEPA Elite AAU teams enjoyed a successful debut season, highlighted by the NEPA Elite Clark 17U squad establishing itself as the best team in the new Hoop Group Showcase League for girls.
The Clark girls were the top team throughout the season as the HGSL teams played each other as part of the schedule that went along with the Hoop Group series of events.
That performance made NEPA Elite the top seed for the HGSL Division at the season-ending Hoop Group Girls Championships and it lived up to that status with four straight wins Oct. 2-4 at Spooky Nook Sports in Manheim Township, Lancaster County.
The Clark girls mixed two types of impressive efforts in the championship weekend, which wrapped up a 25-4 season for the team.
NEPA Elite breezed through the first three rounds of the tournament by a total of 81 points, including a semifinal rout that avenged its most recent loss.
The final was another rematch; this time of an overtime victory.
Overtime was a possibility again until NEPA Elite executed an in-bounds play coming out of a timeout with five seconds left in regulation.
Rachael Rose’s strong drive to the basket did not result in the basket the team was looking for, but it opened the door to Ciera Toomey’s game-winning, tip-in for a 62-60 victory over I-90 Elite Wright from upstate New York.
Unlike the first three rounds in which NEPA Elite displayed extended stretches of dominance to build comfortable leads, the finale was about perseverance as the team needed to overcome early offensive struggles and a 26-point effort by National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I recruit Shay Ciezki.
NEPA Elite came back from deficits of 10 in the first half and nine in the second half. After the teams traded the lead twice late, NEPA Elite found itself behind by four again with 2½ minutes remaining.
“We started to handle their post player (Jessica Cook) really well and their point guard (Ciezki), who is one of the best I’ve seen all year,” said Kevin Clark, the team’s head coach and the founder of the NEPA Elite program. “We threw a lot at her, between Rachael, Moriah (Murray), Kaeli (Romanowski) and Celia, just to get different looks.
“I think in the second half they really handled her. We were able to break with the ball, go on a run and control the tempo the way we usually do.”
Toomey not only scored the winning basket, but the team’s youngest player was the leading scorer for the weekend. Playing on her 16th birthday, on the next to last day of the season, Toomey had a 17-point game.
The 6-foot-3 sophomore forward followed up the birthday effort with a 19-point game in the final. She led the team, otherwise made up entirely of seniors and juniors, with 50 points in the tournament on 19-for-29 shooting from the floor and 10-for-13 from the line.
“She has such a unique skill set,” Clark said. “She’s mature beyond her years. Her IQ is unbelievable.
“The girls as a group just trust each other so much. I don’t think they see the age or the grade. One of the reasons we were able to have so much success is that they put their trust in Ciera just like Ciera puts her trust in them.”
Kylie Lavelle, the only in-season addition the lineup, also averaged in double figures and was the team’s top rebounder, both overall and on the offensive boards. The 6-foot-1 junior guard/forward from Riverside finished with 40 points and 21 rebounds, 10 offensive, in the tournament.
Offensive balance continued to be a trademark of the team.
Four more players averaged at least 5.8 points for the weekend.
Collins added 31 points, Rose had 26 and Murray had 23. Olivia Ciullo added 15 and 10 rebounds in less than a game and a half before hitting her chin off the floor on a hard fall and being unable to continue.
Scranton Prep’s Collins and Rose, Dunmore’s Toomey and Murray, Riverside’s Lavelle and Old Forge’s Ciullo are all high school all-state players.
Collins, Rose and Murray all made four 3-pointers while four other players made at least two.
Murray led the team with 14 assists.
Romanowski and Maria Belardi came off the bench to lead the defensive efforts.
Romanowski, NEPABasketball.com’s Lackawanna League Division 2 Player of the Year last season, had a team-high nine steals. Belardi, another starter from Scranton Prep’s unbeaten team, had three blocked shots.
Both Romanowski and Belardi also went 3-for-5 on 3-pointers.
A game-by-game look back at the championship weekend:
NEPA Elite 60, New Jersey Freedom 39
Lavelle keyed a fast start and the team’s balance was on display throughout a clinching run through the middle of the second half in the Friday night tournament opener.
NEPA Elite did not trail in a game that was tied for the last time at 2-2.
Lavelle had six points during a streak of 11 straight points that ended with her feeding Skylar Bianchi wide open underneath for a 16-4 lead with 9:30 left in the half.
Another Lavelle basket a minute later gave her eight points, four rebounds and two assists in the first 7½ minutes.
Lavelle did not score again, but after her fast start, New Jersey never got closer than six the rest of the way.
The Freedom used a shot from beyond midcourt at the halftime buzzer and a basket on the first possession of the second half to get within, 28-22.
New Jersey scored five straight to get back within eight with 10:42 remaining before Collins hit a 3-pointer to start a 15-4 run.
Moriah Murray followed with a drive. Murray scored four points in the run, which included points from a total of six players.
Toomey went 5-for-7 from the floor while scoring 10 points to lead the balanced attack.
Murray was 4-for-6 while adding nine points and a team-high four rebounds.
Skylar Bianchi, a Valley View senior forward, added seven points. Rose and Ciullo had six each. Clair Marion, an Abington Heights senior, had five.
Rose took just three shots, making a pair of 3-pointers.
Ciullo grabbed a team-high seven rebounds while Collins had six.
Belardi blocked two shots, Romanowski made two steals and Collins grabbed all of her rebounds on that end of the floor to lead the defense.
NEPA Elite shot 53.3 percent (24-for-45) from the floor.
NEPA Elite 65, Long Island Lightning-Flynn 26
Long Island’s Riley Weiss scored seven more points than any single NEPA Elite player, but Long Island was never a threat in the Saturday quarterfinal game.
NEPA Elite started 4-for-4 from the floor for a 10-0 lead just 1:48 into the game.
Rose scored the last six points of the game-opening run with ease. Collins twice made steals to lead to her baskets, then Murray grabbed a defensive rebound and sent the outlet to Rose for a breakaway.
NEPA Elite missed its first three 3-point attempts, then went 9-for-13 from beyond the arc the rest of the way to finish at 56.3 percent from long distance in the game.
Romanowski, Lavelle and Ciullo all had nine points, combining to easily offset the 16 scored by Weiss.
Ciullo was 3-for-4 from the floor and 3-for-3 from the line to help the team to a 29-11 lead before suffering her injury with 1:47 left in the half. She had scored six points in a streak of 17 straight by NEPA Elite while taking a 29-8 lead.
Romanowski and Belardi each made both their 3-point attempts.
Lavelle was 2-for-3 on 3-pointers, including one from the corner with five seconds left for a 36-15 halftime lead.
Murray was 2-for-4 on 3s.
Lavelle also led the team with six rebounds.
Belardi led in assists with four while Rose and Collins had three each and seven of the team’s 10 players had at least two.
Romanowski and Collins joined Belardi with three steals each.
NEPA Elite built the lead as high as 41 points with a 24-5 run in the second half.
NEPA Elite 50, New Hope Academy-Caldwell 29
The last time NEPA Elite had played prior to the Hoop Group Championships was a Sept. 12 game, also at Spooky Nook, in which it lost 55-50 to New Hope, a team from the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.
NEPA Elite left no doubt in the Saturday semifinal rematch with the team from New Hope Academy, which was recognized as the top high team in the country during the 2018-19 season.
After taking control with an 18-1, first-half run, NEPA Elite held New Hope without a field goal for the last 6:32. New Hope had gone 8½ minutes without a basket during the first-half run, which erased its last lead and put NEPA Elite in front, 22-7.
Toomey had a couple of three-point plays and a 3-pointer in the first half on the way to her 17 points. She also had five rebounds, matching the team-high.
Collins added 11 points, led the team with 6 assists and also grabbed 5 rebounds. She made three steals.
Toomey and Collins combined to shoot 12-for-18.
Lavelle added nine points and five rebounds.
Rose joined Collins with three steals.
NEPA Elite 62, I-90 Elite Wright 60
Toomey, Lavelle and Collins led the second-half comeback and all finished in double figures in scoring during Sunday’s tense championship game battle.
“The match-up between us and I-90 Elite produced two games that went right down to the wire,” said Clark, whose team won the first meeting, 78-77, in overtime. “They’re a really well-run program.”
Toomey had 13 of her 19 after halftime when Collins was producing 8 of her 10 points. Lavelle split her 14 points evenly in each half.
Showing off another of the team’s season-long strengths, NEPA Elite made its last nine free throws to finish 14-for-16 (87.5 percent) from the line in the second half and make it through a game in which the teams combined to shoot 51 free throws.
“We have a tough, gritty group,” Clark said.
Bianchi, Rose, Lavelle and Murray each stepped to the line and made both attempts in the last 5:25. Every one of those free throws was attempted with two points or fewer separating the teams.
Rose finished with nine points.
Collins and Lavelle shared the rebounding lead of five.
Murray had four assists.
Romanowski had three steals while Marion and Murray added two each.
I-90 Elite started fast, opening leads of 5-1, 12-4 and 16-7 before the game’s biggest advantage of 23-13 with 3:52 left in the half.
Rose and Belardi began the comeback with consecutive 3-pointers, the only two NEPA Elite made in the first half, to cut the deficit to four.
I-90 Elite held a 31-25 lead at the break and stretched it to 38-29 less than two minutes into the second half.
Toomey scored the next four points on an alley-oop from Collins and two free throws.
Collins then started and ended a 12-3 run to the team’s first lead with 3-pointers. The second one gave NEPA Elite a 45-44 advantage and began a stretch in which the teams were tied three times and remained within two points of each other for 5:55.
Ciezki’s last four points, on a drive and a breakaway, threatened to put I-90 Elite back in control at 58-54 with 2:30 left.
But Rose took the in-bounds pass and dribbled the length of the court to score just seven seconds later. That basket began a streak of six straight points, which combined with Toomey’s buzzer-beater to pull out the victory.
Murray tied the game with two free throws with 1:52 left.
Lavelle converted an offensive rebound with 1:25 left for a lead that lasted just 11 seconds.
Four other plays helped pull out the win in the final minute.
Bianchi and Collins each tied up rebounds on the offensive end. Bianchi got the possession arrow back for the team, meaning that Collins was able to secure the game’s final possession.
Murray blocked a shot and Toomey controlled a defensive rebound when I-90 Elite had a chance to go back in front in the final minute.