By Rich Fisher | Correspondent
When it was all over and the Trenton Catholic Academy girls’ basketball team had suffered a 58-54 overtime loss to Rutgers Prep in the NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public B championship game, coach Bob Fusik felt as much pride in his team as he felt after it won the Mercer County Tournament two weeks earlier.
That’s what happens when a group of gutsy players wipe out an 18-point deficit in the final 9:27 of regulation and force overtime at the buzzer, which is what the Mikes (26-3) did Mar. 6 at Jackson Liberty High School.
Photo Gallery: TCA girls v. Rutgers Prep
“Absolutely,” said Fusik when asked if he felt as proud as after the MCT. “Rutgers Prep is number four in the state; they won it last year. Not taking anything away from anyone in the county, but just the way we fought and played until the end, I can’t ask for anything more as a coach.”
His players felt the same way.
“I’m very proud,” said sophomore guard Giana Boulden, a St. Raphael-Holy Angels, Hamilton, parishioner. “We worked so hard to get here. I’m glad everybody put their heart into it tonight.”
“I’m really proud of my team,” added forward Habiba Elgizawy. “We did great to come back.”
Rutgers Prep, the Somerset-based school at which Fusik was an assistant from 2008-2015, is the two-time defending Non-Public B state champ and has now won three straight South Jersey titles. When the Argonauts took a 38-20 lead with less than two minutes to play, the rest of the game seemed academic.
“We just told them ‘You gotta keep competing; the game is far from over,’” Fusik said.
They did, and the improbable occurred.
The Iron Mikes of Hamilton Township did not just chip away at the deficit, they obliterated it with a 22-0 run in a span of just over six minutes. Leianya Massenat hit a 3-pointer, which lit the fuse. Boulden, who scored 19 of her 23 points in the second half and OT, added two more quick threes as TCA scored 11 straight points in the final 1:27 of the third quarter.
The explosion continued with 11 straight to start the fourth, with Boulden scoring six and Massenat hitting another three. Suddenly, the Mikes had a 42-38 lead.
“It’s the energy, we came out with a lot of energy,” Boulden said. “When we get in our groove, it’s hard to stop us. Once we got in the groove, we realized we’re here, we’re on their level, we can win. Every little thing sparked us even more.”
“We just had to keep playing hard, playing aggressive,” Elgizawy said of the run.
Fusik added, “We fought all year. I didn’t expect anything less.”
But Rutgers Prep didn’t gain its lofty status by submitting to adversity. The Argonauts roared back for a 48-43 lead with under two minutes left. Massenat, who had all 11 of her points in the second half, hit two straight buckets to pull the Mikes within one. Olivia Mullins got a lay-up for Rutgers Prep, but TCA came quickly down court and Kaela Reed drained a 3-pointer with five seconds left to tie it.
“My coaches all wanted a timeout, and I said, ‘What are we gonna run?’” Fusik said. “When we set up our offense, we’re not very good at it, so I said, ‘Let’s live and die with this one play.’ Thank God we lived for another quarter.”
Rutgers Prep (25-4) responded to the buzzer beater with six straight to open overtime. Again, the Mikes rallied, pulling within 56-54 and having the chance to tie before being called for an illegal screen. RP hit two late free throws to seal it and end an outstanding season for TCA.
“Nothing could have made me more happy,” Boulden said. “The way we worked in practice, we deserved to be here. All we’re looking forward to is next year.”
“This was a good game, we had some hard luck,” Elgizawy said. “We had a good season this year; hopefully next season will be very good. We’ll be ready.”
The Mikes will have nearly everyone back except for leading scorer/rebounder Jada Queen, who had 12 points and six boards against Rutgers Prep.
“I’m thrilled,” Fusik said. “Who would have thought we would have won a county championship and nearly won a sectional championship? I’m extremely proud of them tonight. We’re down 18 and could have folded up the tent for the year and our girls just fought, fought, fought.
“We’ll take a week off, and then be ready to go for next year.”