DENVILLE _ Morris Catholic's Danielle Mills couldn't resist the victory lap after going to the basket hard and making a layup in the midst of a 12-point run that bridged the third and fourth quarters.
As the ball slipped through the net, Mills, bursting with emotion, raced past the baseline, did a little loop and went back onto the court. Her exuberance stemmed from two things: Accomplishing what coach Rich Fachet had just mentioned in a timeout and the fact that the Crusaders were likely to return to the Morris County Tournament semifinals after a one-year absence.
Powered by Mills, who had 11 points and 12 rebounds, the second-seeded Crusaders most certainly are back in the Final Four, courtesy of a 33-24 win over No. 10 West Morris on Saturday, Feb. 10 at Morris Knolls High School.
"During the timeout, our coach told us if we come right out and score that it would close it," said Mills, who drew a foul on that play and sank the ensuing free throw. "I saw the wide-open lane and knew that we needed it. The little run was because I was so pumped. I was like 'Wow! I actually did that.' We needed something to keep us in a good mindset and I think that did it."
The triumph earned Morris Catholic (20-1) a berth opposite third-seeded Chatham, a victor over Mendham. Jefferson kept the Crusaders from the semis last winter, ousting them in this round.
"Our 12-point run was huge," Crusaders coach Rich Fachet said. "I kept on saying 'Get a stop. Take some good shots.' Danielle's three-point play was really nice. She's a leader. She was very into this game and had a lot of positive energy."
The Wolfpack had gone up, 19-18, on Alyssa Spady's 3-pointer 45 seconds into the third quarter. Alyssa DeBlasis then hit from outside the arc for the Crusaders to send them ahead, 21-19. The last tie of the game was 21-21. From there, Morris Catholic commenced a 12-point run of unanswered points to take command, 33-21. Mimi Rubino came off the bench to score four in the burst. Mills' three-point play widened it to 10 points, 31-21.
"We didn't put the ball in the basket," West Morris coach Fran Gavin said. "We had some opportunities. Give Morris Catholic credit. They played hard and they played smart."
Mills, a junior forward, has treasured every second of this season after coming back from reconstructive surgery to repair tears of the ACL and meniscus in her right knee. She suffered the injury while playing AAU in April of 2017. Mills had surgery a month later and was finally cleared to play last November.
"There's so much adrenalin. I don't even think about it," Mills said of her knee. "If it hurts, I shake it off and keep playing. I don't worry about it."
It was clear that Mills was ignoring it on Saturday. She and DeBlasis had six points apiece in the opening half versus West Morris. The road to the win, however, had its bumpy spots.
With 3:05 remaining in the second quarter, Morris Catholic led, 16-11. West Morris scored the last five points of the period to knot the score, 16-16, at halftime. Stephanie Galayda had four of those points, capping the mini run with a jumper from the top of the key at 8.4 seconds.
Maddie Selvaggi, the Wolfpack's standout, had a tough time as she was battling a stomach virus and got into foul trouble. Selvaggi (6 points) was whistled for her fourth foul with 4:40 left in the third quarter but stayed in the game. She was charged with her fifth foul in the closing period.
"It didn't help that Maddie was under the weather," Gavin said. "She wasn't herself. One of our better shooters, Annie Mauldin, was a little off, too."
For Mills, a part of the Crusaders squad that claimed the MCT title in 2016, a trip to the semis is a big thrill.
"This was a crazy team effort," Mills said. "We shot, drove, dribbled. We did all we could. We're here to win. The MCT is complicated and challenging. We all wanted it."
Her teammate, junior guard Feyi Idera, relished the opportunity to play at County College of Morris.
"We watched a lot of film," Idera said. "We were really prepared. We won with defense. We wanted to shut down Maddie. Winning today is just great."
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