Cedar Creek outlasts St. Joe's in CAL playoff opener

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When St Joseph’s Dana Donahue launched a three point shot for the lead with 1:08 left to play in Friday’s Cape-Atlantic League playoff game against Cedar Creek, the entire gym at Cedar Creek High School held it’s breath.

When Cedar Creek sophomore Casey Thomas ripped the Donahue miss from off the rim, the home fans let out a roar.

Second seed Cedar Creek (18-3) defeated seventh seed St. Joe’s 45-36 to advance to the semifinal round of the CAL girls basketball tournament, where the Lady Pirates will face Holy Spirit on Wednesday, Feb. 20, at St. Augustine Prep.

Donahue’s three point shot would have given the Lady Wildcats, who trailed 36-38, its first lead of the game. But when the shot went just off the right side off the rim, Thomas, with authority, secured the rebound and started the fast break for the Pirates.

“Coach has been telling me, when you go in, get rebounds and box out. I just went out there and had that on my mind and knew I had to get rebounds.” said Thomas, who grabbed eight ebounds on the night.

“She’s been big for us underneath,” said head coach Fran Raph about Thomas.

Cedar Creek senior standout Kristine Miller made made the most of Thomas’ rebound on the other end. With just under a minute left Miller drove hard to the basket, drawing a foul. Miller converted both foul shots and stretched the Pirate lead to 40-36.

At that point in the game making two foul shots can be nerve-racking, but Miller was 10-for-12 from the foul line on the night and was the perfect player to be in that spot.

“It’s huge,” Raph said about Miller’s late free throws. “That’s what seniors do and we hope that they do that.”

Miller, who wasn’t satisfied with her free-throw shooting coming into Friday’s game, warmed up from the line just before the third period began.

“If there is any time to start making free throws it would be tonight, “ she said, referring to the importance of clutch shooting during a playoff run.

Miller scored a game-high 20 points for the Pirates.

Mikila Stefanski, Miller’s pick-and-roll partner, was instrumental in making sure the senior got to the basket, but she did more than just create opportunities for Miller in the first half.

Stefanski was 3-for-4 from the 3-point line in the half and finished the game with nine points. Cedar Creek’s Mercina Stefanski scored six points.

Going into the half, Cedar Creek led 29-18 and looked to be in command but the Wildcats outscored Cedar Creek 18-9 over the final 15 minutes to get within two points with 1:08 to play. They couldn’t get any closer. Dana Direnzo scored a team high 11 points for St. Joe’s (15-7) in the loss.

“Basketball is a game of spurts,” Raph said. “Team’s are gonna come at you, which we expected them to do, St. Joe’s is a good team.”

As the CAL playoffs continue and the state tournament approaches, Raph does not feel that the Pirates have found their offensive groove yet. “We played well enough to win, but we can play better,” she said.

Fortunately, the Cedar Creek girls found their offensive rhythm just in time to close out St. Joe’s and advance to the semifinal round to face third seeded Holy Spirit  (17-5).

Cedar Creek, which won the 2012 NJSIAA Group I state title and is the fifth seed in South Group II this year, will begin its quest to repeat as state champs on Feb 25, when they face 12th seed Pemberton.

"That's our goal this year," Mikila Stefanski said about capturing another state title. "It's big but I know we can do it."


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