MONTVILLE _ Chatham's 10-0 lead was established in a flash and, of course, left Montville reeling.
And the Cougars kept scoring, seemingly unchallenged, rapidly pushing their advantage to 14.
The Mustangs faced what seemed like a daunting, impossible task - fight back, pull even and, hopefully, assume control - but it wasn't going to be easy against Chatham, a sectional champion and Group III and Morris County Tournament runner-up last winter.
Montville, although stunned by the deficit, turned to its defense, switching briefly to zone to slow the pace then going back to man to man. Again and again, the Mustangs disrupted the Cougars' attack and rallied to gain a 38-33 victory over Chatham on Wednesday, Jan. 8.
"It was not a good start," Montville's Emma Wax said. "They came out of the gate firing. We weren't ready and we paid. It was not the ideal start. They came out hot. We did not envision being down by double digits."
Clamping down on "D" enabled the Mustangs to narrow the gap to four, 19-15, by halftime. Each and every Montville player toiled. Senior Reese Henderson was praised as a "lockdown defender" by coach Derek Lynn. Dani Vito defended down low and was aggressive on screens. Grace Kowalski was kept busy guarding Maddie Hartnett. Wax and Bella Vito did their share, too.
The win moved Montville's record to 7-0 and came two days after the Mustangs defeated Watchung Hills 54-48 in overtime. However, there were no signs of exhaustion as Montville, seeking titles to add to the conference championship it captured in 1980, took care of business.
"It was a tough game," said Lynn of the game versus Chatham. "You think any team which is down 10-0 to Chatham won't win the game. We buckled down on the defensive end and got back into it."
Henderson and Dani Vito were responsible for the first three baskets of the second half for Montville. Vito's field goal, with 4:10 remaining in the third quarter, provided the Mustangs with a 21-19 lead. Kowalski made a free throw for 22-19. The Mustangs pushed it to 24-19 on a Wax layup at 2:08. The third period ended with Montville on top, 28-21.
Chatham closed within two, 30-28, on a Hartnett putback with 4:30 left in the fourth quarter and pulled even, 32-32, on Tess Ford's 15-foot jumper at 3:16. The Mustangs, though, persisted and outscored the Cougars 6-1 the rest of the way. Dani Vito snapped the last deadlock with a layup at 3:04. In the final 1:05, Chatham, always consistent on offense, missed a variety of shot attempts while under defensive pressure by Montville.
"We jumped on them early and, as good teams do, they responded," Cougars coach Joe Gaba said. "Montville is a good basketball team. They took us out of our offense. We got stagnant. We had many opportunities and missed some wide-open shots. Sometimes, the ball goes in. Sometimes, it doesn't."
Bella Vito, the 5-foot-9 junior who had six of her team-high 10 points in the fourth quarter for Montville, favors the man-to-man defense the team has been playing this season. Zone was the preferred "D" in the past.
"We can be aggressive in man. There's not much energy in zone," she said. "You can go for steals and it leads to offense. We're so much better when playing fast."
Wax, bound for Marist, was, of course, well guarded and finished with nine points. The theme was balanced scoring as Montville received 10 points from Bella Vito and eight from Dani Vito. Hartnett topped Chatham with 15 points.
"Chatham put a lot of pressure on Emma," Bella Vito said. "Everyone needed to step up when it counted and we did."
Since defeating the Cougars, the Mustangs have defeated Wayne Valley, West Morris and Morristown to send their record to 10-0. They've scored 60 or more points four times and posted 73 points versus West Morris.
Efforts like that have Montville believing this may be "the year."
"I was born in 1981," Lynn said. "It's been a long time since we've won something."
"We've got high hopes," Bella Vito said. "This is the year for states, county, conference. Everything. We need to get on the banner."
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