Old Tappan stops at nothing for Group 3 title by Darren Cooper of The Record
TOMS RIVER – It came down to a stop. NV/Old Tappan would have it no other way.
“It’s almost like you win the toss and defer to play defense,” said Old Tappan girls basketball coach Brian Dunn. “At that point, I would prefer to be on D, even if its tied, I’d prefer to be on D and create an opportunity for ourselves.”
NV/Old Tappan made one last defensive play to stymie Ewing and come away with a thrilling 46-45 victory Sunday in the Group 3 final at the Barnabas Center in Toms River. The Golden Knights advance to the Tournament of Champions for the second time in three years. Seeds and schedule for the TOC will be released Sunday night.
For the first time since the event started in 1989, there will be two teams from Bergen County playing. Both have distinct identities: Saddle River Day with its stars and pace, Old Tappan with its scars and scrapes.
“Everything comes down to defense,” said Old Tappan senior Erin Harnisch. “It all starts with defense, because without defense, there is no point to offense. Our team is known for having unstoppable defense.”
Harnisch would know, it was she who dove on the ball thwarting Ewing’s last possession with 0.2 seconds on the clock to give the Golden Knights the trophy.
“I was on the ground,” said Harnisch. “I just knew I had to get it.”
The Golden Knights had started guarding the Blue Devils as soon as they got off the bus, at least that’s how it appeared. They led 23-14 at half and 36-30 going into the fourth. Erin Kelly took three charges in the first half for the Golden Knights. It was the style that Old Tappan wanted.
But Ewing was too good to be shackled the entire game and surged ahead 42-41 on a drive by MyAsia Jackson with 3:30 left. After Noelle Gonzalez tied the score at 43 with a daring drive to the basket, Ewing regained the lead with 1:01 left on a basket by Jaycee Lowe.
Old Tappan senior Alexandra George then took a great feed from Sophie Downey to score from inside and was fouled.
You would think the Golden Knights standout would relish the chance, tie game, state title in the balance.
“That’s actually my biggest fear, ask anyone on the team, I’m not the worst free throw shooter, but on a team of good ones, I’m the worst,” said George. “We run sprints all the time in practice because I’m the one who misses foul shots.”
“She’s not lousy, she is not a confident free throw shooter, she just worries a lot,” said Dunn. “She is OK. That is what she is.”
“The ref held the ball for the longest time, I was like, give it to me so I can shoot,” said George. “But it was a matter of tuning everything else out. I was like, get the ball and throw it in. That’s the only thing. I didn’t even realize it was in until I looked up at the scoreboard and was like, oh my gosh, I made it.”
But there were still 44 seconds left on the clock. Ewing set up possession, missed and the ball went out of bounds with 7.1 seconds left. Then one last chance. Kiyla Paterson saw a gap and drove, it looked like George may have reached back and just nudged the ball enough for it to squirt loose. Then Harnisch dove for it. Then George. Then Downey. NV/Old Tappan ball. NV/Old Tappan championship.
“I was on the ground and there were people on top of me,” said Harnisch. “Thank God it ended the game.”
I asked after the Golden Knights semifinal win over Somerville Friday not how the Golden Knights play defense, whether there was some unorthodox style, but how he gets his teams to buy in. Very simply he said if the girls don’t play defense, they don’t play.
Dunn won a sectional football title (that’s why the coin flip analogy fits) and basketball state title in the 2015-16 school year. And he’s done it again now in 2017-18. He’s probably the only coach in New Jersey who can make that claim.
After the game, Dunn talked about how his team started 3-3, and there were some doubts creeping in, but everyone stayed on task. Play defense. Get stops.
“We have been down here three of the last four years and it’s been three very different teams,” said Dunn. “It’s not like one group of kids that had a great run. That’s a tribute to our kids sitting on the bench the last couple of years and the kids watching now, realizing what it takes.”