DENVILLE _ Hanover Park coach Doug Wear is keen on attention to details.
So, in preparation for their Morris County Tournament quarterfinal against Mendham, the Hornets put in even more work than usual, watching two of the Minutemen's games with Wear then viewing one on their own. Still, it was tough to get a handle on the Minutemen.
One thing was certain - Mendham's Joey Meyers needed to be shut down. Hanover Park decided on a 2-3 zone even though it had seen the Minutemen versus man and 1-3-1 defenses.
That choice of defense, along with double-digit offensive efforts by Kelsey Stites and Alexa Petrozzino, propelled the third-seeded Hornets to a 45-29 victory over the No. 6 Minutemen on Saturday, Feb. 11 in the opening game of a quadruple header at Morris Knolls High School.
In the second game, second-seeded Jefferson defeated seventh-seeded Morris Catholic, the four-time defending champion, 51-44, behind 18 points by senior guard Nicole Vassallo.
"We really broke down their film and learned all of their plays," said Petrozzino, who had 11 points, two steals and an assist. "We watched three full games. We wanted to make sure there'd be no easy baskets."
It was the right choice of defense as Meyers was limited to three points, all scored in the closing quarter. The objective was to force Mendham to shoot from the outside.
"I want the players to take the initiative and break things down," Wear said. "All I do is reassure them that that's what they saw. Before games and on the court, we're into details."
Hanover Park was intent on winning and gaining a berth in the semifinals, which will be held on Friday, Feb. 17 at County College of Morris. In 2015 and 2016, the Hornets were ousted in the quarters, falling to Morris Knolls and Morris Catholic.
"We're all excited to get to the next game," said Stites, the sophomore who ended with 14 points. "We're so happy. It was a goal."
Stites' effort at the free throw line, especially in the fourth quarter, ensured the Hornets would move on. Stites converted 8-of-12 foul shots, five over the last 1:06.
"You have to block out what's around you," Stites said. "I don't mind pressure situations."
Hanover Park opted to go with the 2-3 zone, abandoning its man to man, for several reasons.
"Meyers is a great player and Mendham is well coached," Wear said. "You look at films and scout them and a lot goes through (Meyers). We figured that taking her out of her comfort zone would benefit us. We wanted to force their shooters to beat us and not a girl who averages close to 20 points per game. We never let her out of our sight. There was good communication. If we didn't lose her, we could hang in there."
It was 5-5 after the opening quarter. The Hornets took command with an 18-5 second period paced by Ava Gammo's five points and four apiece by Meghan Macaluso and Stites.
"They did a good job on Joey," Mendham coach Mark Gnapp said. "She was frustrated. She didn't get some calls on fouls. Joey usually gets to the line and that gets her going. We usually shoot better. I'm still proud of these kids. We're probably the only team in Morris County that didn't return one starter. That says a lot about our girls."
Jefferson, which will appear in the MCT semis for the second consecutive year, gained a 17-3 lead 2:14 into the second quarter. Vassallo fueled the offense by scoring 10 of those 17 points. By halftime, Vassallo, hot from outside the arc, had 15 points and the Falcons had a 26-15 advantage.
The Crusaders, though, came back boosted, in part, by freshman Emily Rubino (14 points). Emily Duerr, a sophomore, had a putback with 4:47 remaining to cut Morris Catholic's deficit to three, 38-35.
Taylor Langan, who had three points over the initial three quarters, then came alive for Jefferson, scoring 13 of her 16 points in the fourth quarter. After Duerr's putback, nailed two 3-pointers in a span of one minute, extending the Falcons' lead to 44-37. Danielle Mills made it 44-39 for Morris Catholic with 2:29 remaining but Vassallo netted her fourth 3-pointer to put Jefferson in front, 47-39.
"In the first half, all of our shots were going in and we were pumped up," Vassallo said. "We were playing big-time defense. In the second half, our shots didn't go in and we were frustrated. We had some defensive breakdowns and we weren't boxing out. When Morris Catholic got within three, I was nervous. I figured we'd stick it out."
Langan, a 1,000-point scorer, did what coach James MacDermid expected her to do.
"Taylor willed us to the finish line," MacDermid said. "She'd tell you that she could have played better but she did very well."
MacDermid, too, felt that junior forward Victoria Pietraszkiewicz played a key role.
"Victoria was the best on the floor, the player of the game," MacDermid said. "She did well guarding Mills. She was a big concern. Victoria defended great on the perimeter, got to the free throw line and scored some points."
Pietraszkiewicz said that Mills (seven points, all in the fourth quarter) was not easy to guard.
"Taylor told me about her," Pietraszkiewicz said. "She watched something on Hudl. She said (Mills) was like me. She's physical down low and goes to her right a lot. I gave her some distance so she couldn't shoot from outside. She's more likely to drive."
Vassallo, her jersey bearing a bloodstain that was the result of an elbow to the nose, relishes the chance to return to the semifinals.
"It's super fun," she said. "I'm really excited. It's a great way to end my senior season."
***PHOTO GALLERY FROM BOTH GAMES BELOW***
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