Red Knights win first sectional game in 8 years

MORRISTOWN – To some teams, a first-round playoff game is just a bump on the road toward a district, regional or even a state title.

To the Toronto girls basketball team, the first game was a hurdle that hadn’t been cleared in eight years.

On Saturday at Union Local, the Red Knights took a strong leap over the daunting barrier with a 54-51 win over Bellaire St. John in the opening sectional game of the Division IV tournament.

“We came in and knew we had to do something to change the history of our school,” said point guard Lexie Berger. “The only way to do that was to win this sectional game.”

The Red Knights (12-10) previously topped the Fighting Irish twice in the regular season.

“It’s very hard to beat a team three times,” said Toronto coach Mallory Blanton said. “That’s another goal we had.”

St. John (9-13) scored the first five points of the game, but didn’t convert again until the 2:04 mark of the opening quarter. The struggles continued in the second where the Irish were limited to just 1 of 15 shooting from the field, while missing 10 first-half free throws.

Toronto took its first double digit lead, 19-8, at the 6:40 mark of the second quarter on a Lindsay Bodnar jumper. The lead grew to 32-11 at the 1:37 mark of the second on Bodnar’s third 3-pointer of the half.

“We missed so many shots early on and we buried ourselves in a hole,” said Irish coach Bubba Kapral. “We have a whole lot of respect for Lexie Berger and Lindsay Bodnar. They’re two outstanding players.”

Bodnar finished with a team-high 19 points. The senior had five rebounds, two steals and an assist, while Berger added 13 points. The junior also knocked down 6 of 7 free throws in the fourth quarter, which helped deter a St. John comeback.

The Irish cut the deficit to six points in the third, thanks to a 19-point frame, and would get to within one in the final two minutes.

Berger led a patient offense as time clicked down and ran off over a minute by handling the ball in the backcourt.

“It seemed like hours,” Berger said. “You just know that you have to keep going until they foul you. You get to the line and know you have to make them to win.”

Marissa Rose scored 21 of her game-high 29 points in the second half. Only two other players, Jessica Alvey with 12 and Lindsay Froelich with 10, registered points for St. John.

“It’s easier to play when you’re 19 down,” Kapral said. “We played with more passion in the second half. Toronto came to play early on and we’re able to whether the storm.”

With 57 seconds left in regulation, Toronto’s Josey Jones knocked the ball away from an Irish player under her own basket and went straight for an easy lay up to give the Red Knights a 49-44 lead.

Makayla Baumann and Katie Spadafora, two of Toronto’s starters, had fouled out earlier in the quarter.

“Our two main post players were sitting on the bench, but everybody else stepped up,” Blanton said. “The fact that there was a possibility of us winning a sectional game got into their heads. They started to see it slip away.

“You can’t keep it in your head or it’s going to mess everything up. They held it together.”

St. John held a 36-34 rebounding advantage with the 6-foot-3 Froehlich leading with 12 boards. Baumann grabbed eight for Toronto and finished with nine points. Malaysia Harrison added six points.

Toronto will now face Bishop Rosencrans at 6 p.m. Thursday at Union Local.

“We just know how to stick together,” Bodnar said. “We pick each other up when we’re down – that’s one thing we’ve learned to do.

“We’re going to come in Monday and practice hard to prepare for this next game. We’ve worked hard all season and we’re going to keep stepping up.”