- Mindi Rice
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WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. -- In the shadow of New York City, the Garden State is sometimes overlooked for basketball teams.
It's a different style for sure, but Jersey's best teams are deep, strong and contenders in their own right, and they put it on display Sunday in the Champions Challenge at Monmouth University.
St. John Vianney (Holmdel, N.J.) easily put away a tired Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) squad, 69-53, before No. 17 University (Newark, N.J.) battled for a 75-67 victory against Colts Neck (N.J.).
In Sunday's other games, J. F. Kennedy beat No. 31 Trenton Central, 49-43, while St. Peter's beat Blair Academy, 67-60, hitting 10 3-pointers as a team and giving coach Bob Daggett his 400th victory. In the tournament's final game, North Babylon beat St. Rose, 72-49, behind 19 points from Eugenia McPherson and 18 from Bria Hartley.
The Lancers from St. John Vianney put on a well-choreographed performance against Oak Hill, giving a sizeable group of fans a taste of how a half-court team can let a full-court, full-pressure team wear itself out, especially when that team is just coming back from being apart for nearly three weeks.
Oak Hill, which hasn't practiced at home since before Thanksgiving, when the team started traveling, then returned to the boarding school after the Nike Tournament of Champions and just in time for holiday break, showed signs of fatigue late. Senior Shylanda Saunders led Oak Hill with 16 points, the team's only player in double figures.
"We've gotten better through being battled tested, but there are some things we need to work on," Oak Hill coach Mike Rodgers said. "That was a well-coached team who was very sharp. They had a game plan and they executed."
The win for St. John Vianney didn't come solely on Oak Hill's fatigue. With a strong core of nine players who know the roles coach Dawn Karpell has laid out, the Lancers are, at times, interchangeable and truly nine players deep.
Katelyn Linney, one of three seniors on the impressive St. John Vianney squad, had a game-high 21 points, including a 3-pointer with 3:30 to go in the third quarter that gave the three-year starter 1,000 career points. Freshman Michaela Mabrey was close behind with 18, while sophomore Missy Repoli added 15.
"(Linney) has improved each year she's been with us and it's a tribute to how hard she works," said Karpell, a Lancer alumna herself. "She's got the most guts out there. She wants to take the big shot. All of her make up makes her into a great basketball player."
The Lancers will need all the experience they garnered Sunday in one week, when they face Saturday's top team, Murry Bergtraum, in another New Jersey tournament.
As for University, the Phoenix faced a tough battle against Colts Neck, another young, Central Jersey team with plenty of depth and interchangeable players who fill their roles well.
A one-point game for the first three quarters, junior Laurin Mincy spearheaded a 9-0 University run and the Phoenix were able to hang on for the win.
"University's a great team," Colts Neck coach John Truhan said. "Any little mistake you make is magnified by the type of team that they are. They really did a good job of exploiting the (defensive) rotation."
It's been an up-and-down holiday season for the Phoenix, who lost to then-No. 2 St. Michael Academy in their own tournament; went 1-1 in a tough T-Mobile Invitational in Indiana, losing to host state school South Bend Washington; and have at times struggled with the consistency of the team's depth. One more out-of-state trip, this time to Ohio, awaits University before the heart of conference play.
"We have a lot of scorers and a lot of threats," said Mincy, who finished with 32 points. "So we wanted to work on our defense. ... We did OK, but we still have a lot of things to work on. I think (today) we're going to have a bit of a hard practice."
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Mindi Rice is a staff writer for ESPN HoopGurlz. She previously was an award-winning sportswriter at the Tacoma News Tribune and grew up in Seattle, where she attended Roosevelt High School before graduating from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.