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WEST LONG BRANCH -- Playing without its top player and with one of its senior leaders saddled with foul trouble, the St. John Vianney girls basketball team took the opportunity to showcase its depth, its perseverance and its bright future.

Freshman Madison Kocis poured in 19 points and senior Ashley Sofilkanich scored 17 as the top-seeded Lady Lancers overcame the absence of injured senior Zoe Brooks to beat No. 2 Red Bank Catholic, 58-52, to win its fourth straight Shore Conference Tournament title.

Brooks -- a North Carolina State commit -- aggravated an ankle injury in Manasquan's semifinal win over St. Rose on Wednesday night and was in a walking boot while seated on St. John Vianney's bench Sunday afternoon in the OceanFirst Bank Center at Monmouth University.

Photo: Ray Rich Photography.
Photo: Ray Rich Photography.

"Something like this is special and it was a really special performance all-around." St. John Vianney coach Dawn Karpell said. "We hadn't had a game without Zoe, so you're coming a court and a venue like this against a tough opponent and the kids had to adjust to not having our best player. I said going in, 'You all have to step up in your own individual way.' The kids really answered the call."

To make matters worse for the Lancers, once the game started, senior Janie Bachmann dealt with foul trouble throughout the game, picking up three fouls in the first half, her fourth in the first two minutes of the third quarter, and fouled out with 5:01 left in the fourth quarter.

Red Bank Catholic took advantage of the short-handed Lancers by jumping out to a 15-13 first-quarter lead and hitting the Lancers with a 16-3 run that gave RBC a 31-22 lead in the final minute of the first half. A jumper by senior Julia Karpell pulled Vianney within seven by halftime.

Kocis and Soflikanich both did most of their scoring damage in the second half, with a three-pointer by the freshman giving St. John Vianney a 41-39 lead with 1:15 left in the third quarter.

With her 19 points Sunday, Kocis came up one point shy of her career high, but the performance was the defining one of her young career.

"Sometimes it's better for freshman just not to think," Karpell said. "Sometimes, they just go out and let the moment come to them. She (Kocis) is a shooter, but she's more than a shooter. She is a competitor and she has done everything we have asked her to do. Today, she was the kid they left open and she made them pay."

After RBC took the lead back on a three by Tessa Liggio to open the fourth, Sofilkanich gave the Lancers the lead for good with a three-point play to make it 46-44.

Red Bank Catholic stayed within striking distance and a three-pointer by Casey Prior cut St. John Vianney's lead to 52-50 with just under two minutes to go. Senior Bre Delaney answered back with a three-pointer with 1:20 left -- her first basket of the game -- to push the Lancers lead back to 55-50.

Sophomore Tessa Carman scored 13 points and classmate Christina Liggio chipped in 12 to lead Red Bank Catholic.

Karpell and Bachmann each added eight points for St. John Vianney, which has won the last three official Shore Conference Tournaments, as well as the unofficial conference playoff title in the COVID-shortened 2021 season.

With its third straight official championship, the Lancers are have won three titles in a row for the fourth time in the history of the program, which includes six straight championships from 1994 through 1999. That Lancers dynasty and Asbury Park from 1974 to 1977 are the only programs to win four straight, which this Vianney group has, effectively, done with the COVID-shortened season included.

Nick Lowe's Take

Championship teams have championship players step up at different times and that is why SJV has shown year in and year out why they are the state's best. They came into the game without star player and NJ Player of the Year favorite Zoe Brooks, but others stepped up at different points in the game to defeat RBC, 58-52, to win their 4th straight SCT Title.

On the biggest stage, freshman Madison Kocis knocked down three 3-pointers and finished with a team-high 19 points. Her biggest points came with 17 seconds left when she grabbed an offensive rebound and scored the basket to put the game out of reach.

“At that point I think we were up two or three and I knew it was a big play and it felt so good to be in there and make that play and we got the win," Kocis said about her rebound and putback. “Practicing with her (Brooks) and learning from her it really helped me elevate my game and we knew Zoe was going to be out so we all knew we had to do something a little bit better.”

Winning the SCT did not come easy though for SJV. RBC started the game playing very strong defense and had balanced scoring in the first quarter. Senior Molly Kelly caused problems for the Lady Lancers as they struggled to get into any flow on the offensive end. At times you can see how frustrated SJV was getting on offense.

SJV was able to start the second quarter on a 6-0 run to take their first lead 17-15 with 6:42 left, but RBC quickly took it to another level on the offensive end. RBC was able to knock down four three-pointers in the quarter to help build a 31-24 lead at halftime. Senior Casey Prior, who finished with 9 points,  hit two of her three three-pointers in the quarter. Sophomore Christina Liggio went 6-for-6 from the foul line in the first half and scored eight out of her 12 points in the half. Sophomore Tessa Carman scored seven out of her team-high 13 points in the first half and had to battle foul trouble in the second half.

“We made a couple adjustments defensively and we got into our flow of running our offense,” coach Dawn Karpell said about the second half. “Once we figured out how to attack them we did a great job.”

Senior Ashley Sofilkanich continues to finish off her career with great performances. She caused problems inside for RBC, finishing with 17 points and grabbing 6 rebounds including two offensive rebounds late in the fourth quarter to help the Lady Lancers seal the game.

“I remember my freshman year going out to the court and playing one possession and today getting to play the entire game and helping out my team and winning is the best feeling ever,” Sofilkanich said. “Starting and finishing at Monmouth in the Shore Conference, it's a great tournament and I love this part of the season.”

The Lady Lancers, who are used to having Brooks step up late in the game, had everyone step up in the fourth quarter, junior Julia Karpell, who was struggling from behind the arc early, hit a three-pointer with 3:08 to put SJV up 51-47. Senior Bre Delaney hit her only shot of the game, a three-pointer with 1:20 left to make it 55-52.

“Going into this game without Zoe, I know we have a great team and we have enough talent and work hard enough to win without her,” Sofilkanich said. “We knew what we had going into this game and we executed.”

RBC would not go away easily in the fourth quarter. Prior hit a very deep 3-pointer with 1:46 left in the game to cut SJV’s lead 52-50. Freshman Tessa Liggio scored all 5 of her points in the fourth quarter and had a big shot in the lane to keep it a one possession game 55-52, but that is the closest the Caseys could cut it to.

“It was a special performance,” Karpell said. “We have not had a game without Zoe, so you come into a venue like this and the kids have to adjust to not having our best player all year and they all had to step up in their own individual way.”

Nick Lowe is a Shore Sports Network contributor covering Shore Conference girls basketball.

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