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TOMS RIVER -- It has been obvious since the beginning of the season that St. John Vianney has the best girls basketball team in New Jersey and the Lancers have been so dominant that could might very well have the two best teams in the state on one roster.

For the last three months, St. John Vianney has been demolishing every would-be contender for its No. 1 ranking in New Jersey and after vanquishing another Friday night in the Tournament of Champions semifinals, it is become more and more plausible that the best team in the state outside of St. John Vianney's starting five might be its second unit.

With a wave of early foul trouble forcing Lancers coach Dawn Karpell to go to her bench, St. John Vianney's second line did not miss a beat and helped the Lancers fight off NJSIAA Group III champion Sparta, 75-54, to advance to the Tournament of Champions final Sunday against Rutgers Prep at Jersey Mike's Arena in Piscataway.

St. John Vianney senior Madison St. Rose. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
St. John Vianney senior Madison St. Rose. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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"I'm super excited about it," St. John Vianney coach Dawn Karpell said. "I thought our bench kids came in and played awesome tonight. They gave us pretty good energy and that was pretty much what separated us and allowed us to extend our lead."

Once again, it was senior Madison St. Rose and junior Zoe Brooks that led St. John Vianney in scoring, with Brooks scoring 18 of her game-high 27 points in the second half and St. Rose going for 13 of her 21 before halftime. Brooks also picked up four assists and four steals while St. Rose posted six rebounds, six assists and three steals.

While the two All-State guards for the Lancers put up big numbers in the box score, some early foul trouble for multiple SJV starters kept Karpell's bench in the game for extended spurts and, once again, the group more than held the fort.

"It was just sustaining the intensity and making Sparta work," Karpell said. "We didn't give them a break and it took their legs away."

St. John Vianney junior Zoe Brooks. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
St. John Vianney junior Zoe Brooks. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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"The players off the court are just as important as the players on the court," St. Rose said. "Practices are very competitive and coach always tells us that our best competition is going to be against each other."

Junior Bre Delaney stepped in as St. John Vianney's No. 3 scorer on Friday with nine points and also spent much of her time on the floor defending Sparta junior Ally Sweeney, who finished with nine points -- more than four below her season average.

"Sparta moves the ball really well, so we had to be disciplined with our rotations," Delaney said. "We had to know where their guards are and just match up, especially against their more dangerous scorers."

Juniors Ashley Sofikanich and Michaela Hubbard, plus sophomore Julia Karpell, all provided big minutes off the bench on both ends as well.

Senior Megan Cahalan also provided seven points and junior Janie Bachmann went for four points and six rebounds.

"We come in and just try to play our hardest and try to play our role," Delaney said. "Whether it's scoring, passing, rebounding, we try to do what we can, but it's mostly defense. That's what we all take pride in."

St. John Vianney senior Megan Cahalan. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
St. John Vianney senior Megan Cahalan. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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The well-rounded effort helped St. John Vianney overcome what Karpell dubbed a sloppy game for her team. The Lancers committed 11 fouls in the first half and 10 more in the second and, considering the Spartans were in the bonus by the 6:40 mark of the third quarter, the latter number might have been higher had the score been closer.

"I thought we were a little sloppy tonight," Karpell said. "Sparta played really well, we got a little sloppy, but we did enough to win.

"I think the kids were focused, but I think it was really hard to adjust. We haven't had a game officiated like that all year."

St. John Vianney also had an off-night shooting the ball, going 3-for-17 as a team beyond the three-point arc. St. Rose shot 0-for-6 from three-point range and played with foul trouble for much of her night, but New Jersey's Gatorade Player of the Year still put together her usual scoring output.

"Some of the fouls made some of our players get down," St. Rose said. "But I feel like the energy from the bench really made us forget about it. We stepped up the defense, we played our offense and we didn't worry about the calls."

The Lancers also never let Sparta get within striking distance, despite the best efforts of the Group III champions. Vianney closed the first quarter with eight straight points to take a 22-10 lead, then started the second quarter on a 9-2 run to go up, 31-12.

Sparta did not let the deficit grow to 20 until the second half, but once the Lancers took a 46-26 lead in the middle of the third, they never let the Spartans cut it below 20 again.

St. John Vianney junior Janie Bachmann. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
St. John Vianney junior Janie Bachmann. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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Brynn McCurry led Sparta with 24 points, while Alexa Acker added 11 for the Spartans, which earned the right to face St. John Vianney by winning the Group III championship and defeating Group IV champion Westfield in the quarterfinal round of the T of C.

St. John Vianney has now won 63 straight games against teams from New Jersey and only four of them have been decided by fewer than 10 points. The closest any team from New Jersey has come within St. John Vianney this season was Manasquan, which St. John Vianney beat, 62-46, in the Shore Conference Tournament final.

The Lancers will try to put a ribbon on one of the best season's in program history, as well as what could go down as a defining era in New Jersey high school basketball with the Tournament of Champions being discontinued by the NJSIAA after this season.

St. John Vianney will finish with the most T of C championships of any girls basketball program, regardless of what happens on Sunday, and can finish off the Tournament of Champions era with its eight tournament championship.

"Our history is our history and we're super excited, because for these kids, it's their first time," said Karpell, who last guided St. John Vianney to the Tournament of Champions in 2016, when the Lancers won the whole thing. "For them, it's a special opportunity since it's their first time coming to it."

 

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