DENVILLE _ The first quarter of Morristown's game Morris County Tournament quarterfinal-round game versus Morris Knolls left Colonials coach Jim Pisciotto wondering... and somewhat distressed.
The Golden Eagles were aggressive and fearless on their home court, asserting themselves and running with top-seeded Morristown. At the end of the opening quarter, Morris Knolls had a two-point edge.
It wasn't long, however, before the Colonials took control, utilizing an 18-point run in the second quarter to surge ahead of ninth-seeded Morris Knolls en route to a 60-34 win on Saturday, Feb. 11.
Fifth-seeded Chatham punched its ticket to the semifinals for the first time since 2014 by dispatching fourth-seeded Montville, 45-33, and will face Morristown.
"We settled down and kept playing," Pisciotto said. "We didn't do anything different. The tempo of the game turned in our favor. Morris Knolls is so much bigger and stronger than us. Krista Mitarotonda is very tough and physical. Could they handle our press? I wasn't sure what would happen."
The initial eight minutes of the Morristown-Morris Knolls game were tight. The Golden Eagles played with determination and hustle and were sparked by Mitarotonda and Christi Conroy. Mitarotonda stole the ball at halfcourt and scored with 11.1 seconds, giving her eight points for the quarter.
Right after that, the Colonials, the MCT runners-up to Morris Catholic a year ago, went into overdrive, reeling off 18 unanswered points, six by Kayla Bush and five each by Elizabeth Strambi and Tara O'Neil, to pull ahead 30-14 at halftime. Morris Knolls was not heard from for nearly 10 minutes. After halftime, Morristown kept the pressure on. Strambi's field goal from beyod the arc, one of her three 3-pointers, was at the buzzer signaling the conclusion of the third period.
O'Neil, the freshman who has started every game for the Colonials, came up big with 12 points.
"Tara keeps getting better and better," Pisciotto said. "She's more confident. She looks to play defense first and takes what she can get on the offensive end."
After coming up short last season, Morristown is anxious to get back to the final.
"It's everyone's goal," Pisciotto said. "We want to go and win it. Chatham is tough. We're going to need to play defense."
The Cougars used their last NJAC-United Division game against Montville as motivation. Chatham allowed the Mustangs 13 offensive rebounds which resulted in seven second-chance points and lost by three. Therefore, Chatham coach Joe Gaba reminded his team to be relentless on the boards as well as to contain the dribble and hustle for loose balls.
"We had to be first to the ball and be aggressive rebounders," said junior guard Chloe Blanc, one of three Cougars in double figures with 10 points. "We had to want the ball more than our opponent. We had to avoid those second-chance opportunities."
They were successful in all areas. Chatham, which will make its 11th trip to the semifinals, went in front 12-9 in the first quarter as Liz Ford scored five points of her 11 points.
"We got out to a slow start," Blanc said. "We didn't score much. We moved the ball more in the second half and more pick and rolls."
Veronica Kelly, a junior, was consistent throughout for the Cougars, tallying six points in each half.
"Today, we wanted to go out and get to the semis," Gaba said. "It was all effort. When we play as a team, we're tough to beat. When our inside and outside games are going, we're really, really tough. We've had a lot of close losses. Our record doesn't indicate who we are as a team."
Gaba noted that the energetic, versatile Blanc was an important factor in the outcome.
"Chloe is freakishly athletic," Gaba said. "It's no secret that when she's shooting, rebounding and defending that we are at our best."
Blanc is thrilled to be going to the semifinals.
"It'll be awesome," she said. "I've never been there so I'm really excited. It's going to be a great experience."
***PHOTOS FROM BOTH GAMES IN GALLERY BELOW***
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