MONTVILLE _ Derek Lynn was extremely thorough, of course, when preparing Montville for the 2016-17 season.
Lynn and the Mustangs went through their paces, doing drill after drill, running through plays and making sure they were well conditioned. However, Montville, which defeated Mendham 49-42 in a season opener on Friday, Dec. 16, didn't get to one important aspect of the game.
"We really haven't practiced late-game situations yet," Lynn said. "It still went pretty well. We weren't great but we were pretty good."
Montville, which led 28-20 at halftime, was above average late in the second half, especially in the waning minutes, maintaining calm and proving it could withstand late threats by the Minutemen, clearly intent on pushing as hard they could in the NJAC-United Division matchup.
With 41.4 seconds left in the third quarter, Mendham trailed by seven points. The Minutemen got within four, 43-39, on a 12-foot jumper by Nikki Surella with 1:21 remaining in the closing period. At 11.8 seconds, Joey Meyers had a putback to leave Mendham trailing, 47-42. Montville, which returned four of five starters, may have been rattled yet didn't let it show.
"I was definitely a little nervous," said junior guard Taylor Strickland, who had 19 of her career-high 23 points in the first half. "The team came together, got the points back and got the win."
Impressive, considering the Mustangs were playing their first game in seven years without an O'Reilly in the lineup. Kelly, the youngest, graduated last spring after amassing 1,774 points and is playing at Manhattan College. Katie, a 2014 graduate and 1,000-point scorer, is at the University of Scranton.
With the O'Reilly sisters out of the picture, Montville's players know well what is required.
"At first, it was a little weird," Strickland said. "We've been together for awhile so we're used to each other. All we have to do is play our game. We have to step up and work to fill."
The first half belonged to Strickland and the Mustangs. Strickland, whose previous career high was 19 versus Mount Olive on Feb. 18, 2016, had three of her five 3s in the second quarter to help Montville go up by eight.
"Jordan was getting a lot of open looks in their 1-3-1 and knocked them down," Lynn said. "That was big for us. It got them out of the 1-3-1. It's tough to see that on the first night."
Lynn noted that when Strickland "gets hot, she does that." He's been reminding his players that they'd have bigger roles andhave to make the most of their opportunities.
Strickland, also a member of the volleyball and softball squads, had a handful of 3s in preseason scrimmages and surprised herself with her accuracy from long range.
"I shocked myself," she said. "I took it a few steps further. I concentrated during warmups and was pumped up. I was so excited about the season starting."
To keep Strickland at bay, Mendham went to man defense after halftime. The Minutemen succeeded in keeping her scoreless for 8:42 after the break. Both teams were slow getting started in the third quarter, turning the ball over a combined eight times. Jane Beiermeister's free throws boosted the Mustangs' advantage to 30-20 with 3:45 left in the third quarter.
Mendham kept plugging and a layup by Meyer, a sophomore guard, left it with a five-point deficit, 32-27, with 17 seconds remaining in the third period. Meyer had a stellar game, scoring 21 points. The Minutemen drew closer in the fourth period but could not pull even.
Amanda Gorski, denied in the post for much of the game, scored critical back-to-back baskets for Montville early in the fourth quarter to help deny determined Mendham.
"We have a tough group. They're scrappy," Minutemen coach Mark Gnapp said. "We played hard. It was just that we got too deep into the hole."
Latest from Sandy Seegers