Senior Morgan Micallef made four 3-pointers and scored 14 points for No. 4 seed Northern Highlands, advanced to the North 1, Group 3 semifinals with a 52-42 win over No. 5 Ramapo.
ALLENDALE – Brianne Davis has seen the full spectrum of high school basketball. She came into Northern Highlands as a highly-touted freshman, a starter from Day 1 and an instant contributor for one of Bergen County’s best public school programs. Basketball was everything to Davis back then.
“I was one of those kids…I went into my freshman year saying I am going to start varsity, do everything I can in high school basketball and then go on and play in college. That was always the plan,” said Davis, now one of the most experienced seniors around. “Then in my junior year I just kept getting injured all the time. That did not help me get showcased and I realized that I really want to focus on my academics in college because I am not going to be playing in the WNBA.”
Maturity is wonderful asset to have at this time of year when every game has the potential to be the last for every senior that takes the floor in the state tournament. Davis, one of two senior starters for Northern Highlands, certainly felt the urgency when her fourth-seeded Highlanders hosted No. 5 seed and longtime rival Ramapo in the North 1, Group 3 state sectional quarterfinals on Thursday evening in Allendale.
Down by four points with just under six minutes left in regulation, Davis found herself on the wing with the ball. She was well behind the three-point arc, but without a defender closing, she let one fly. Davis’ lone field goal of the game kicked off a 16-2 run that the Highlanders’ closed the game with as they grabbed a spot in the state sectional semifinals with a 52-42 victory. As luck would have it, Northern Highlands will have one more home game after Montville, the No. 8 seed, knocked off No. 1 and defending champion Northern Valley/Old Tappan.
“I remember freshman year like it was yesterday, so it is really hard for me to realize that, since I am not playing in college, that whenever my last game is, it will be a state tournament game,” said Davis. “For me, it is all coming to a conclusion, but I did not want it to be tonight.”
Sophomore Lauren Achter scored 14 points to lead Ramapo and is one of four starters set to return for next season.
While Davis and Morgan Micallef, Highlands’ two senior starters, represented to old guard fighting to extend their careers on one side, Ramapo is just getting started. The Green Raiders have two sophomores and two freshmen in their starting lineup (plus senior Jenny Amato) and the two teams split a pair of regular season meetings with each winning on the other’s home court.
Highlands had a good stretch early as Micallef’s three-pointer from the top of the key gave the Highlanders an 8-2 lead to start the game, but Ramapo’s Julia Corella and Lauren Achter hit first quarter threes and Corella’s deep two with 30 seconds left in the opening period gave the Raiders a 12-10 advantage.
Ramapo’s best stretch of offense in the game started with a Faten Huzien putback midway through the second quarter and that spurred an 11-0 spurt that included three-pointers by Achter, Savannah Nowak and Corella. Micallef answered with five straight points to close the first half as the Highlanders drew to within 27-21 at the break.
“I wanted to do everything in my power to win this game and to keep this season going. I really just wanted to hustle and do everything I could. I could not really get anything going in the post tonight, so I tried to do the little things to make up for it,” said Micallef. “This is big for us because we thought this was going to be our last home game and now we are going to get another one on Saturday. That is definitely going to be our last one, so we are going to fight as hard as we can to win and keep going.”
Ramapo kept the lead for most of the third quarter. There was a tie at 31 and a 36-34 Highlands lead after a Micallef (14 points) three-pointer with 1:02 left in the period before Achter backed a defender down in the post and scored to make it a tie game, 36-36, heading into the fourth quarter.
Sophomore Anna Sciuto scored 13 points for Highlands, which will host No. 8 Montville, an upset winner over top-seeded defending champion Old Tappan, in Saturday's sectional semifinal round.
Achter, a physical sophomore with a bevy of low-post moves, converted a conventional three-point play to open the fourth quarter and then added a free throw to put Ramapo up 40-36 with 6:09 to play, but Davis hit that huge three-pointer the next time down the floor to kick off Highlands’ decisive, game-ending run.
“We knew coming in that they were going to keep fighting and they made shots tonight. You have to give them credit,” said Ramapo head coach Sandy Gordon. “We got a little tentative and the bottom line is that they did enough to win. We changed up the defense and Bri [Davis] hit that dagger there. We got one stop out of the defensive change, but I probably went one possession too many with it.”
Emma Cary (6 points) scored off a drive-and-dish by Anna Sciuto (13 points) to put Highlands in front for good, 41-40, with 4:04 to go and Kelli Kunzel (6 points) hit another key jumper, a three-pointer from the corner with 3:13 left that made it 44-40. Ramapo’s last points came on Madison Schiller putback with 1:34 left that made it a two-point game, but Highlands went 8 for 8 from the free throw line in the final 1:16 with Davis, who finished with a game-high 15 points, going 6 for 6 from the stripe in that stretch and 12 of 14 in the game. As a team, Highlands made 8 three-pointers (4 by Micallef and two by Kunzel) and went a combined 14 of 17 from the free throw line.
Ramapo got all of its scoring from players that will be back next season. Corella and Schiller, the two freshmen guards, scored 10 points apiece. Achter finished with a team-high 14 points and fellow sophomore starter Nowak added 4. Huzien (4 points) provided all of the bench scoring for the Raiders, who have a bright future in front of them.
“I just told them in the locker room that I have been doing this for a long time, 12 years at Po, and from top to bottom, the freshman program to the varsity program, this is the most enjoyable team I have coached, ever,” said Gordon, who got a hug from every member of the Amato family before exiting the gym. “There was no drama, they truly love being around each other and there are no agendas. They share the ball, it was joy to coach them and there was not one day from start to finish where I did not want to come to practice.”
Highlands is a fun story itself as injuries have hit hard, but have not slowed the Highlanders down. Rich Micallef has used glue and athletic tape to keep this team going in his first season at the helm. The former Fair Lawn boys coach who left that gig to take over at his alma mater, Brooklyn College, is back in the high school ranks now with a chance to coach his daughter in her final season.
Rich Micallef got choked up just talking about it.
“We have been going through some lineup changes with all of the kids that have been hurt. We have five kids that are out and I have to hand it to this team. They just won’t quit. We have three ACLs, a concussion and a torn tendon. Contributors, players, but what are you going to do? It’s next man up. We changed our offense to suit the lineup and we are thrilled,” said Rich Micallef. “I am so proud of all of these girls, but you asked about my daughter and, look, I love her. Tonight she came to play, she stepped up her game. So proud, so proud of everybody and tonight we just refused to lose.”