RANDOLPH _ Hannah Kelly and Chloe Blanc had done their stints for Chatham, trying their best to contain Morris Catholic's Danielle Mills.
Mills, the not-so-easy-to-contain junior guard/forward, boosted her game in the third quarter in an attempt to erase the Crusaders' four-point halftime deficit. She was succeeding and becoming more and more exuberant with each basket. Displaying her usual aggressiveness and determination, Mills drove to the hoop then fired in a 3-pointer. She drew a foul and sank both free throws with 3:40 remaining in the third to bring Morris Catholic even, 24-24.
It was then that Cougars coach Joe Gaba called on Michaela Ford to deter Mills, their main focus, in the Morris County Girls Basketball Tournament semifinal On Friday, Feb. 16 at County College of Morris.
Ford, several inches shorter than Mills at 5 foot 5 and certainly not as physical, met the task. Ford's defense was exceptional as she denied Mills the rest of the way and helped third-seeded Chatham gain a 43-32 win over No. 2 Morris Catholic. Top-seeded and defending champion Morristown, buoyed by an 11-point run in the third quarter, defeated fifth-seeded Jefferson, 45-30, in the other MCT semifinal.
"We locked down on defense, especially in the fourth quarter," Ford said. "We were determined to win. I didn't mind guarding (Mills). Defense is my favorite thing. No matter who it is, I can guard them."
Ford compared guarding Mills to matching up with Mendham's Joey Meyers. She considers Meyers "a big guard." The Cougars (17-6) went up against Mendham twice recently. Meyers sat out one game with an injury but she was on the court on Tuesday and Ford was assigned to her.
"I've been working on my defense," she said. "I've been concentrating on my footwork. I knew I might have to guard (Mills) at some point in this game so I was ready. I got up on her. The goal is to get her to dribble the ball."
Also beneficial was the time Ford put in with assistant coach Lindsay Atchison, the former Chatham High School standout and King's College player. Atchison, now an assistant coach, is 6 feet tall and offered advice about how to halt talented offensive players.
"Coach Atchison has been helping me, especially with footwork," Ford said. "I learned about fronting the post and what to do when the ball is on different parts of the floor."
Gaba praised all of the girls who had to contend with Mills, who finished with a team-high 13 points for Morris Catholic (22-2).
"The two things were wanted to do were stop them offensively and force our will on them and execute," Gaba said. "Morris Catholic was well scouted. We could not allow Danielle Mills to go out and do what she does. She's strong and dynamic. We saw things on film and felt we could expose them. Everyone was so unselfish tonight. It was a total team effort."
The Cougars, according to Gaba, certainly lived up to this season's theme which is "Good, better, best."
In a 34-second span early in the third quarter, Chatham received 3-pointers from Hannah Kelly and Camryn Davies and pulled in front, 24-16. The Crusaders countered with an eight-point run in which Mills scored seven points. Her two foul shots tied the score, 24-24. The Cougars' Veronica Kelly snapped that deadlock before Feyi Idera dropped in a layup for knot it again, 26-26, with 2:28 remaining in the third period. Morris Catholic went on top, 28-26, with 1:52 left on another Idera basket.
Chatham, which will appear in its first MCT final since 2012, had the last four points of the quarter to secure a 30-28 advantage. The Cougars opened the fourth quarter with a three-point play by Veronica Kelly and stretched their unanswered run to seven. Emma Duerr (12 points) got Morris Catholic within three, 33-30, before Chatham, whose high scorer was Veronica Kelly with 14, commenced an eight-point burst. That run, which featured points from four different players, sealed the victory.
Next, the Cougars headed to their team room to dance. First on the playlist was "Together," a song from "High School Musical."
"We were all going crazy," Ford said. "We've been anticipating this all week, all season. We blasted the music. Winning tonight is special. It's an amazing feeling."
Morristown (18-2) was powered by Elizabeth Strambi and Kate Kolb, who had 17 and 16 points, respectively. Tara O'Neill added eight.
The Colonials, who netted seven 3-pointers, four by Strambi, and Jefferson (17-5) engaged in a close battle. Morristown led 22-13 at halftime but the Falcons bounded back and closed within one, 22-21, with 3:42 left in the third quarter. Jefferson's eight-point skein was keyed by Taylor Langan's four points and Nicole Lemieux's 3-pointer. However, the Colonials strung together 11 unanswered points within the last 3:02 of the period to go up, 33-21. O'Neill nailed two 3s and sank a free throw during that stretch and Kolb, who struggled earlier on, had four points.
"It came down to us, to me, making shots," Kolb said. "I couldn't catch the ball for a little bit. The guards gave me great passes. They were right where they needed to be but..."
Jefferson, paced by Langan's 13 points, could get no closer than nine in the closing quarter and did not score over the final 2:36. Morristown ensured the win by converting 6-of-9 free throws.
Colonials coach Jim Pisciotto expressed relief about being able to overcome Jefferson's 2-3 zone defense.
"That is not a traditional zone," Pisciotto said. "It's a half-court trap more than anything else. It's tough to move the ball. They have five guards and so many passing lanes. Our girls showed a lot of poise. We got the early lead then you look up and it's one point. We got something going to change the tempo. We've seen many defenses lately. It's tough to get a rhythm so we looked a little clunky but that's OK."
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