Nutley’s girls basketball team was a little late in arriving to Warren Hills Regional High School on Tuesday night.
But, that’s OK. After all, the Blue Streaks didn’t truly show up until the second half anyway.
Second-seeded Warren Hills posted a dominant final two quarters to defeat the No. 15 Raiders 54-27 in the first round of the NJSIAA North 2 Group 3 tournament.
The Blue Streaks (18-6) advance to host West Morris Central, which defeated Cranford 58-53, in the sectional quarterfinals on Thursday.
Warren Hills took a modest 16-13 lead into the break, but quickly turned a close contest into a rout with a 15-0 run to start the third quarter.
Junior Shawnn Flaherty capped the streak by knocking down a 3-pointer to press the lead to 31-13 with 3:29 left in the period. She hit a jumper moments later to give the Blue Streaks more points (17) in the first 5:08 of the second half than they scored in the initial two quarters.
“We just started playing to our ability, the level that we can play at, which is why it was such a different game after halftime,” senior Mini Ajayi said.
Having Ajayi back in the post helped, too. The senior, who had nine of her 10 points after intermission, was burdened with foul trouble in the opening half.
“It always helps when we have Mini in the game,” Blue Streaks coach Meghan McGeehan said. “She’s a huge factor for us.”
Warren Hills outscored the visitors 23-7 in the third quarter and took Nutley (7-19) completely out of the contest.
McGeehan didn’t have an explanation for the turnaround, but her message in the halftime locker room was straightforward: “If you want the season to end today, keep playing the way you’re playing,” she said. “If you want to play again on Thursday, you better pick it up.”
Flaherty, who finished with 10 points, said it was as simple as making open looks.
“We just played basketball,” she said. “We started making out shots, because we weren’t making any during the first half. We picked up our intensity.”
Flaherty, a sharpshooting guard, is one of several players who’s been asked to increase her role due to the injuries that have knocked out three key contributors for Warren Hills, including leading scorer Devyn Gara.
“Shawnn knocked down some big shots,” McGeehan said. “Shawnn is known as a 3-point shooter by a lot of people. Anybody that looks at our box scores sees that. We’ve been pushing her a little more out of her comfort zone since we’ve had all these injuries … She’s done a lot more, which I knew she could do.”
Sophomore Nicole Mallard, who scored 37 against Pope John XXIII on Friday, led the team with 15 points on Tuesday.
The Streaks’ injury woes have meant more minutes for sophomores like Lianna Johnson, Lexi Westley and Morgan DeMayo. As a senior, Ajayi appreciates the underclassmen answering the call and playing well in the playoffs.
“We lost a lot of talent this year to season-ending injuries,” she said. “(The young players) being able to step up and play at a varsity level, when they haven’t had that much experience, is really great because we needed that … We have all these different contributions. It’s not just one person, it’s the whole team collectively, helping us win.”
“I’m actually really happy (with the underclassmen),” Flaherty said. “They’ve stepped up. It’s hard to do that — playing freshman and JV basketball and then going right to varsity without even knowing all of our plays.”
McGeehan is interested to see how the Streaks will react to the first-round victory and how they protect their home court going forward.
“For the younger kids, I think it’s important to see that every team is going come in here and absolutely claw, scrape and do anything they can do to beat you,” the coach said.
Ajayi thinks Tuesday’s second half will provide a big boost going into the quarterfinals.
“We’re going to stay focused at practice tomorrow and, hopefully, on Thursday we come out, play hard and get another win,” she said.
Kyle Craig may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @KyleCraigSports. Find Lehigh Valley high school sports on Facebook.
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