"It's always the ultimate goal for us to get to the semis and final," said senior guard Amanda Berntsen, whose 25 points had much to do with Chatham's quarterfinal-round MCT win on Saturday, Feb. 11 at Morris Knolls High School.
There was no arrogance in Berntsen's voice when stating the Cougars' intentions. Their coach, Joe Gaba, won't allow his players to behave that way.
"There's not one person on our team who hasn't been to the semis," Gaba said. "I want the girls to enjoy it, appreciate it and not forget the kids who never got the opportunity."
Chatham (20-1) advanced to the MCT final in 2010 and 2011 and was runner-up both times. It will face defending champion Morris Catholic in a semifinal on Friday, Feb. 17 at 7:30 p.m. at FDU-Florham.
In order to gain their eighth semifinal in nine years, the Cougars had to get past the Golden Panthers, a team they beat twice in NJAC-Independence Division play.
Always tough, Pequannock, which fell by two and three points, put up another impressive fight. Only in the last 6:50 was Chatham able to pull away.
One minute and 10 seconds into the closing period, a field goal by Bridget Carr brought the Golden Panthers within one, 28-27. The Cougars then commenced a 10-point run to widen their lead to 38-27. Berntsen drove to the basket and dropped in three layups. Twice, she was fouled and completed the three-point plays.
"Once we got to that point, I had a lot of intensity in me," said Berntsen, whose basketball career and academic pursuits will continue at Princeton University. "I didn't want to lose it. We wanted this game and we all worked hard for it."
Chatham netted 11-of-14 free throws over the last eight minutes which aided in staving off Pequannock.
With 3:02 remaining, the Golden Panthers' standout center Sam Tabakman, committed to the University of Rhode Island, had a putback to cut Chatham's advantage to five, 40-35. The Cougars went to the free throw line twice in a 55-second span. Berntsen and Sam Kennedy made two foul shots apiece to jack their lead back up.
Soon after, Tabakman (14 points) connected again from close range and Nicole Hausleben fired in a free throw, leaving Pequannock trailing by four, 44-40, at 36.2 seconds. Chatham completed the scoring by netting 5-of-6 free throws.
"In the second half, we got into the flow of the offense more," Berntsen said. "We played good defense. Most of all, we hit our foul shots which really helped."
The Cougars benefited from their 2-2-1 press and got some baskets in transition. In previous games versus the Golden Panthers, Chatham used its press sparingly because it feared Tabakman would break free on the open court. Gaba felt confident using it at Morris Knolls because of the bigger floor.
Pequannock got off to a fast start and was on top, 12-11, after one quarter. The teams went into the break with the Cougars holding an 18-17 advantage.
"They're a senior-laden team," Gaba said. "They left it all on the floor. Peggy (Bionde) should be proud of them. They played their hearts out and gave us all we could handle."