RANDOLPH _ Shortly after the final buzzer sounded signaling the end of the Morris County Tournament final and sending Chatham into a frenzied celebration, coach Joe Gaba's cell phone received a deluge of text messages.
Among those checking in immediately and sending congratulatory texts were former players Amanda Berntsen, Grace Conroy, Cassie Falone, Caitlyn Kuntz, Kelsey and Kendall Davies and Liz Ford. Several of them had experienced the thrill of playing in MCT title games when the Cougars were runners-up from 2010-2012.
On Feb. 23, 2018 - a date long to be remembered in Chatham High School sports history - the Cougars, fueled by Veronica Kelly's 13 points, left the County College of Morris gymnasium as proud champions following a 40-31 victory over top-seeded Morristown.
Finally, the Cougars, perenially contenders in the conference, county and state, were holding and showing off the championship plaque that represented their first MCT crown. And, if one looked closely, they'd see the fingerprints of the players who came before them on the plaque. Clearly, they were a part of this, too.
"Coach Gaba and Chatham have been chasing this for 20-something years," said Kelly, named the tournament MVP. "It's crazy. Just insane. It hasn't set in yet. I know I feel excited. I'm happy. Really happy. We knew we could do it."
Reasons for the elation are many. Third-seeded Chatham (18-7) suffered losses to Morristown this season by 10 and five points, respectively, in NJAC-United Division matchups this season. Kelly and the other seniors had never beaten the Colonials, who claimed the MCT title in 2017. Last year, the Colonials triumphed three times by double digits.
The Cougars held few leads over Morristown in the past and never late in a game. They either fell behind early or were even at halftime before the Colonials took charge. So, there a little anxiety at halftime at CCM when Chatham was up by only one, 16-15, yet it had the mindset required to prevail. The Cougars benefited from clashing with Rumson-Fair Haven, University, Hunterdon Central, Oak Knoll, Bayonne, Montville, West Morris Morris Catholic and Jefferson.
"What they did to win this championship... We were prepared," Gaba said. "The schedule in the conference and the counties was tough. We were tested each and every night. I can't say enough about these girls. Morristown is so aggressive. They take you out of your offense. I knew it would be a dogfight and it was. It came down to execution and we were a little better."
Both teams had to cope with an injury or illness to a starting player. Morristown certainly missed Kate Kolb, who amassed 34 points and asserted herself inside in the previous two MCT games. Kolb was not herself due to a sprained ankle and saw limited action, scoring only three points. The Cougars did not have a full-strength Hannah Kelly, who was getting over an illness. Tess Ford, a freshman, started in her place. The younger Kelly did play and contributed five points.
The championship, along with this entire season, has been savored by Chatham senior Chloe Blanc, who sat out much of last season after knee surgery.
The main objective versus Morristown was "to take the game minute by minute," according to Kelly.
"We couldn't let them get a big lead," Kelly said. "We had to win more minutes than them. We couldn't play for 32 minutes and try to win all of them. That was unrealistic."
"We have not played from the front against them," Gaba noted. "We had to get a little separation, maybe six points or so, and we had to put pressure on them and defend the other end of the floor."
Chatham, the lone Morris County team to defeat Morristown this season, didn't open a huge gap in the third period. Two minutes and 34 seconds after halftime, Kelly fired in the second of her three 3-pointers, connecting from the right side, to put the Cougars on top, 23-18. Up 25-22, Chatham closed out the third quarter with a field goal by Maddie Hartnett at 54.3 seconds and went ahead by five again.
Twice in the frenzied fourth quarter, the Cougars led by seven. Nicole Ferrara netted a 3-pointer 56 seconds into the closing period to bring Morristown within four, 29-25. From there, Chatham commenced a nine-point run, highlighted by Kelly's five points, and took command, 38-25, with 47.3 seconds remaining. The Cougars made 8-of-10 free throws in the fourth quarter, including 6 of 6 over the last 1:26.
"It feels great that we were able to beat Morristown," said Camryn Davies, one of three Chatham seniors. "Everyone was involved. We were super pumped up. We didn't turn the ball over as much as we did in the other games. We played four of us against six defenders to get ready for Morristown's ball pressure. On defense, we didn't give up easy looks. We were together. We played as one."
Morristown, which received 11 points from Elizabeth Strambi, simply did not put forth its best effort.
"Chatham was the better team tonight," Colonials coach Jim Pisciotto said. "We picked a bad day to have an off game. I am proud of our girls for all they accomplished this year. We took our best shot and won the conference. When you are No. 1, you only have one place to go. Our girls were poised and executed all year. I'm very proud of my team."
Taylor Langan, Jefferson
Danielle Mills, Morris Catholic
Kate Kolb, Morristown
Elizabeth Strambi, Morristown
Michaela Ford, Chatham
Veronica Kelly, Chatham - MVP
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