"I'm tired," Gaba quietly said after his top-seeded Chatham squad beat fourth-seeded Morris Catholic, 44-40, in overtime on Friday, Feb. 17. "That was stressful."
Plenty of stomachs, no doubt, turned as the game wore on.
The Cougars (22-1) prevailed by outscoring the Crusaders 7-3 in the extra period. Senior guard Amanda Berntsen had 10 of her 21 points in the fourth quarter and OT to power Chatham. A Berntsen steal and layup with 59.4 seconds left in overtime snapped a 37-37 deadlock.
"It wasn't the prettiest game we've ever played but we pulled it out," Berntsen said. "We stayed calm and played tough. We wanted to win so badly."
Of all the players on the court, Berntsen wanted it most. When Chatham fell to Morris Catholic in the 2011 title game, she had only one point. Berntsen didn't enjoy losing and didn't want to be in that position again.
"It came down to being able to get defensive stops when we needed to and rebounding at the end," Gaba said. "You expect your best player to make a play and she did."
Berntsen's theft led to the first basket by either team in overtime.
"I just anticipated it," Berntsen said. "I saw it coming. We needed to score. We didn't want to trail."
Chatham didn't as Berntsen grabbed the ball and raced to the basket. Her layup put the Cougars up, 39-37. Beyond that, Chatham capitalized on free throws, coverting 5 of 6 over the last 23.7 seconds.
"Amanda's steal really helped us," Chatham's Lauren Winschuh said. "It gave us confidence."
The game was marred by poor shooting on both sides and frequent turnovers. Morris Catholic was 4 for 25 from the field in the opening half. The Cougars weren't much better.
Key in the game was a seven-point run by Chatham right before halftime. Berntsen started it with a layup. Kendall Davies netted a 3-pointer and Grace Conroy also scored.
In the third quarter, the Cougars expanded their lead to 11 points. Conroy's layup 2:41 afer the break made it 23-12.
Morris Catholic (19-3) outscored Chatham 11-4 over the remainder of the third period and sliced its deficit to four, 27-23.
The fourth quarter saw the Crusaders outscore the Cougars, 14-10. A pair of free throws by Danni Brown (13 points) at 1:09 and and a putback by Anna Toke at 44.6 seconds pulled Morris Catholic even, 37-37.
As the time ticked down in regulation, Brown, tightly guarded, got off a shot. Toke grabbed the rebound and put the ball back up. Crusaders coach Rich Fachet felt both players were fouled.
"We should've been on the line at the end (of regulation)," Fachet said. "Danni got crushed and the same thing happened to Anna."
Winschuh, for one, was grateful for overtime.
"I was really nervous then. It was too close," Winschuh said. "It was a relief to go into overtime. We were so ready for it."