Imagine how Whippany Park felt when it cut Cedar Creek's lead to four 2:44 into the fourth quarter on an Olivia Dudley 3-pointer.
The Wildcats, despite strong will and determination, lost 50-38 to the Pirates of Egg Harbor City at Pine Belt Arena on Sunday, March 11.
"We were very happy with our season up until this point," Olivia Dudley said. "Their defense was really good. Their big girl clogged up the lane. It was hard to shoot or drive with help defense in the middle."
It certainly was. It was evident early on that Whippany Park, whose tallest player stands 5-foot-9, might face an uphill battle in its first state final appearance since 1992.
The "big girl" Olivia Dudley referred to was Kristine Miller, Cedar Creek's 5-foot-11 junior center. Miller had an exceptional showing, scoring 22 points, taking down 13 rebounds, nine on the defensive end, and blocking two shots.
A good number of Miller's baskets were putbacks. She opened the scoring with one 58 seconds into the game, commencing a seven-point run. The Wildcats (25-6) were hampered by Cedar Creek's smothering defense and converted only 3-of-12 field goals in the first quarter. In the opening half, they converted only 4-of-23 attempts and were behind 19-11 at halftime.
Olivia Dudley, a senior, was closely guarded by Pirates sophomore Mercina Stefanski and managed only three points in the first half. Dudley connected for a 3-pointer 1:33 before the break. She got open more and found her groove in the second half and fired in three more 3s and finished with 16 points.
The Wildcats hurt themselves, too, missing easy layups and uncontested long-range shot attempts. There were instances when they uncharacteristically forced shots.
"Cedar Creek played as good of a defense as we've seen all year," Whippany Park coach Tom Wilson said. "By putting (Miller) in the lane, we didn't get the dribble penetration baskets we've been getting for the last month. We like to kick the ball out for 3-pointers but they rotated defensively which limited our opportunities."
The Pirates' eight-point halftime lead shrunk when Olivia Dudley netted a 3-pointer to start the second half. Lauren O'Connor's basket brought Whippany Park to 21-16 one minute into the third period.
Miller and Cedar Creek, though, did not yield, responding with a six-point run. All six points in the burst were by Miller.
And, in the fourth quarter when Whippany Park kept fighting and reduced its deficit to four, 39-35, the Pirates once again fended off the threat, going on an 11-3 spree to close out the game.
"We couldn't get the big defensive stops we needed," Wilson said.
Morgan Stefanski, a sophomore, added 12 points and nine rebounds for Cedar Creek. Alana Dudley joined her sister in double figures with 10 points. O'Connor had six rebounds to go with her seven points.
Although this ending certainly wasn't what the Wildcats desired, they'll have many memories of a fine season.
"These seniors have been the most successful in Whippany Park history," Wilson said. "They've won 88 games over four years. It's been a tremendous run. They fell a game short of what they wanted but they definitely deserved to be here."
Alana Dudley said she was pleased with what was "accomplished as a team and individuals."
"We're proud of ourselves and thankful for the four seniors," she said.
"We had the biggest season in 20 years at Whippany Park," Olivia Dudley said. "We played like a team and got this far. It's nice to match what some of the teams in the past did."