The Lady Pioneers are making a tradition out of this.
For the second straight year, the New Providence girls’ varsity basketball team beat University to win the NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 2, Group 1 championship, 48-46.
This time, however, the Lady Pioneers have proved to all of their detractors that they are for real. Even though they moved up to the Mountain Division in the Union County Conference, played tougher competition all season long, lost several key contributors from last season, lost in the Union County Conference tournament again and had to go to overtime last night, the girls from New Providence still got the job done and can still be called the champs.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” New Providence coach Cap Pazdera said. “I’m shocked, to be honest, I really thought we were going to get our butts handed to us by this team because they were hungry after losing to us last year. I just figured they were going to come in here trying to blow our doors off, and they did… but our girls just executed the game plan perfectly and just never quit.”
University was in position to exact a measure of revenge for last year, but intervened and gave teammate the chance to be the hero in the extra period.
After Gregory sent the game into overtime with a tying free throw with seven seconds left, Culleton swished a 3-pointer to break the tie and make sure the sectional crown stayed in New Providence for another season.
Culleton’s clutch shot from the right corner came with 3:16 left in overtime, and the Lady Pioneers never relinquished the lead, going on to win 48-46 over a University team that was ranked seventh in the state.
“It’s all of my dreams come true,” Culleton said. “The first time was amazing and to do it again, we really proved ourselves that we can compete with these teams and even beat them.”
Gregory had 21 points in a thriller that saw neither team hold a lead larger than five points. The senior forward put New Providence up 36-31 with a pull-up jumper with 5:20 left in the fourth, but University went on a 9-0 run over the next 3:18 to take a 40-36 lead with 2:02 left.
Culleton then dribbled out of a trap to get the ball over half court and tossed a pass over the top of the defense into the paint to Kaitlyn Cresencia for a basket to cut it to 40-38 with 1:02 left.
University later led 41-40, but with 23 seconds left, New Providence stole an inbounds pass. Out of a timeout, Gregory got the ball inside and drew the contact for a foul. With all the pressure on, she missed the first, but came through and hit the second to tie the game and send it to overtime; less than a minute into the extra period, Culleton became the hero.
“Disbelief, I’m in shock right now,” Gregory said. “Year after year, everyone’s telling us we’re nothing because we’re not getting past the Union County tournament, everybody underestimates us and they’re like ‘oh, they’re not really a great team,’ but if we beat University, a state-ranked team, two years in a row, I don’t know what else we have to prove.”
It was fitting that Gregory had to hit the free throw to save the Lady Pioneers and ensure that this would not be her last career game, because the forward had put the team on her back all game long.
“It was nice,” Pazdera said. “For her, I wish that she would have made both just so she could have been the hero, because she just played a phenomenal game, she was attacking the basket, she made some great critical baskets, but her making that free throw was phenomenal.”
The senior scored 17 of the Lady Pioneers’ 22 combined points in the second and third quarters to help New Providence keep pace with a University team that clearly came to play.
Gregory gave the Lady Pioneers a brief lead early in the third by scoring on a drive, but University went back ahead by three; she then helped her team retake the lead with 3:30 left with a jumper in the lane despite having a defender nearly draped on her.
Gregory then assisted Cresencia with a bounce pass to the paint; Cresencia’s layup made it 32-27 New Providence with 1:16 left in the third.
Cresencia, also a senior, was the second-leading scorer for the Lady Pioneers with 12 points.
“I’m too happy to cry right now,” she said after the win.
“Every single year, it’s about proving ourselves, against what everybody thinks, to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke and that we can come out here with great teams, it’s anything I could ask for for my senior year,” she added.
The Lady Pioneers had a chance to end the game after Gregory’s free throw, as University threw the inbounds pass away and out of bounds on the sideline, but New Providence also turned it over out of bounds on their next possession.
Sharpshooter is the only consistent 3-point shooter that the Lady Pioneers have, but she couldn’t find her stroke in this one, going 2-for-12 from the field, so someone else had to step up; that someone was Culleton.
“Huge, that was the backbreaker,” Pazdera said of Culleton’s shot. "We told her before the game that if she hit open shots, she was going to be open based on match-ups. If she was able to hit her shots then we were going to win.”
Culleton hit her biggest shot of the season, and, as Pazdera predicted to her before the game, the Lady Pioneers prevailed.
The Lady Pioneers will play in the Group 1 Semifinals on Wednesday, March 9. Time and opponent are TBA.