Sara Haas of Nottingham goes up for the jumper against Robbinsville. Photo by Michael A. Sabo
By Rich Fisher
Feb. 12: It stands to reason Maddy Diaz did not enjoy a post-game meal.
She had already eaten.
“My heart was in my stomach,” said Diaz, after her Nottingham High girls’ basketball team held off host Robbinsville for a gut-wrenching 46-42 victory Monday night.
The Northstars had a first-half lead of 13 points and a third-quarter advantage of 10, but late in the game, Robbinsville tied it at 39-39 and 40-40. Huge buckets by Sara Haas and Patricia “Famus P” Penix, and two gigantic free throws from Giuliana Pocino enabled the Northstars (10-10) to hold and finally reach .500 for the first time all season.
It’s an impressive achievement for a team of mostly underclassman that graduated it’s top two scorers from last year.
“The last week of the regular season we got there,” said coach Lauren Adams, who will some year get the Coach of the Year Award that she so richly deserves. “I think that overall today, we played a really strong four quarters. Obviously, our shots didn’t fall as much in the second half but our defense kept us in it and the coaches have been telling them when we play hard for four quarters then we’re a really tough team.
“It’s when we give up a couple minutes here, a couple minutes there and we don’t put a complete game together, that’s where we’ve gotten those 10 losses from. It just feels good to finally have our win column catch up.”
Nottingham will be hard-pressed to be over.500 heading into Thursday’s Mercer County Tournament opener at Notre Dame, as it faces Ewing Tuesday. The Devils just won their 20th game by beating Steinert tonight.
But the Northstars have an increasing faith in themselves.
“This gives us our confidence, it sets a tone for us,” said Diaz, who had 13 points and three 3-pointers. “We know we’re the underdogs, everyone else kind of knows we’re the underdogs so (being .500) gives us some sort of respect.”
“We’ve come a long way, especially since last year,” Pocino said. “I think we have a really good chance of upsetting Notre Dame. Hopefully it will come together that night.”
A sign of Nottingham’s improvement since December is how it did not implode after seeing its big lead collapse.
After a three throw by Sara Haas (15 points) gave Nottingham a 40-39 edge, a suddenly hot Molly Aromando launched a potential game-changing jumper for the Ravens. But Penix blocked the shot to keep the lead intact and, after Fiona Aromando made one of two foul shots the game was tied 40-40.
Haas then got aggressive, taking a pass at the foul line and driving the lane to make it 42-40. After a Ravens miss, Penix calmly drained a baseline jumper to put the Stars up 44-40. Famus P had a stellar game with seven points and 14 rebounds.
After Aromando made a lay-up (and missed the and-one), Robbinsville fouled Pocino with 5.7 seconds left. The junior had missed two of three free throws earlier in the game, but she drew two imaginary crosses on the ball, asked her late grandfather Pasquale Nicolo for some help and drained both shots to put it away.
“In my head I’m thinking I have to make it,” Pocino said. “If I miss, we’re in trouble.”
“They were huuuuuge!” Diaz said. “I know that boosted her self-esteem. She felt she had a lot on her shoulders and I know that her making those, she knew we were proud of her.”
Just as Adams was proud of Diaz for the defensive job she did on Fiona Aromando. Robbinsville’s 1,000-point scorer finished with 17, but was harassed into a 6-for-16 shooting night by Diaz. Aromando had just five first-half points but, along with her sister Molly, nearly brought the Ravens back.
“She’s an excellent player, and an excellent player is going to get her points,” Adams said. “I thought Maddy did a knock up job, especially in the first half. If you had a team filled with Maddy’s then you could be a really happy coach.
“She definitely helps us out offensively but her strongest point is she defends the other team’s best player every time we go on the court. It’s very comforting having her out there. She has not been in foul trouble all year and she’s been one of the best players every single game. It’s nice to know you have a girl like that to go to.”
Diaz does not over-think things when she goes against a big-time scorer.
“I treat it like it’s any other player,” she said. “I don’t worry about them but I worry about my defense and how I’m playing to contain them. I know if I do slip up, my teammates have my back.”
It all added up to the kind of gut-check win a team needs entering the post-season. With every opportunity to fold, the Northstars hung in and hung on.
“It got intense and it got tough,” Adams said. “We did not falter under the pressure at the end. Giuliana hit two huge foul shots. They were crucial. We played smart, kept our heads. I don’t think they even realized we blew that lead. That’s the way they were playing. They weren’t playing panicked or anything like that. That definitely shows signs of maturity.”
Ewing girls avenge loss to Steinert
Playing on its homecourt, Ewing avenged an earlier loss to Steinert’s girls by taking a 66-53 victory.
Natalie Mehl had the hot hand for Steinert, draining six 3-pointers en route to 22 points. But the Devils had a balanced attack, getting 18 points and 10 rebounds from Myasia Jackson and 13 points each from Mya Grimes and Jaycee Lowe. The Devils (20-4) took control by outscoring Steinert 26-7 in the second quarter.
Jayda Bing had 7 points and 8 rebounds for the Spartans (17-5) while Erika Golik had 9 points.
Nottingham boys earn top seed in MCT
The Nottingham boys team gained the top seed in the upcoming Mercer County Tournament and will host the Lawrence-Princeton winner Thursday night. One of the more attractive first-round match-ups will feature No. 10 Hamilton West at No. 7 West Windsor-Plainsboro North; while No. 15 Steinert visits No. 2 Trenton Catholic.
In girls play, Steinert earned a 5th-seed and will host No. 12 Robbinsville. The 13th-seeded Northstars heat to No. 4 Notre Dame. Hamilton West is not in the tournament.
First-round games are Thursday and the quarterfinals are Saturday at the gyms of the higher seeds. The action moves to CURE Insurance Arena for Tuesday’s semifinals and Thursday’s finals.