MONROE TOWNSHIP - Francine Raph sometimes forgets her Cedar Creek High School girls basketball players are mostly sophomores.
The pressure is high for the Pirates in their second varsity season. They are competing against teams with some of the state's best juniors and seniors.
When Metuchen pulled within seven points late in the third quarter of Thursday night's state Group I semifinal thanks to multiple Cedar Creek turnovers, Raph called a timeout to regroup and calm her players.
Cedar Creek played the remainder of the game with poise and salvaged an important victory.
Cedar Creek defeated Metuchen 54-42 at Williamstown High School. The Pirates (25-4) advance to the state championship game against Whippany Park at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Pine Belt Arena in Toms River.
Sophomore forward Morgan Stefanski said the fifth win of the Pirates' playoff run "tops everything. It just keeps getting better and better."
Metuchen (21-7) went on a 9-3 run in the third quarter to trail Cedar Creek 33-26, prompting Raph to use a timeout.
"We haven't been on the road in the playoffs. They looked a little uncertain," Raph said.
The Pirates closed the quarter with seven unanswered points, after which their lead was never less than nine.
It was the closest playoff game Cedar Creek has participated in this season. In front of its raucous home crowds, Cedar Creek upended opponents. The Pirates won their previous playoff games by margins ranging from 29-49 points.
Cedar Creek bused nearly 70 students to Williamstown to make the Pirates feel more at home. But out of their element for the first time in the postseason, the Pirates struggled to hold on to a strong lead.
"It was nerve-wracking," said Stefanski, who had seven rebounds.
Despite a comfortable 18-point lead early in the fourth quarter, Cedar Creek kept the pace up. The quickened tempo worked against the Pirates. They fired down-court passes that often resulted in turnovers. Cedar Creek had 11 turnovers in the second half after just six in the first.
Metuchen went on a 9-2 run to again pull within single digits. Jenna Oyler scored five in the two-minute streak.
"We love to push the ball up," Raph said. "That's being young."
The Bulldogs limited opportunities for Cedar Creek's Kristine Miller. After averaging 25.0 points in the Pirates' first four postseason games, Miller scored 13 points. The 6-foot junior didn't break double digits until the fourth quarter.
Metuchen post player Cassie Smith, a sophomore, led all scorers with 17 points.
Miller's late baskets helped seal the win, however. She caught a pass from Mikila Stefanski at the left post with 28 seconds left in the third quarter, spun and sank the shot, was fouled and completed the 3-point play to put the Pirates up by 12. Miller finished with seven rebounds and three blocked shots.
"She does get beat up inside. She comes up strong in the end, and that's what matters," Raph said.
With Miller unavailable, Cedar Creek turned to its outside game. Mikila and Mercina Stefanski each scored 13 points. Mercina sank three 3-pointers in the first half.
Cedar Creek will need utilize all of its firepower Sunday. The Pirates will compete for the school's first state championship in any sport.
Cedar Creek will use its semifinal experience as a reminder to stay poised.
"We'll give it everything we've got. We'll leave it all on the floor," Mercina Stefanski said.
Contact Brittany Grugan:
Metuchen 4 13 9 16-42
Cedar Creek 16 14 10 14-54
M-Oyler 4 3-6 13, Smith 7 3-5 17, Wooding 0 0-0 0, Corson 1 3-4 5, Palmieri 2 2-2 7. Totals-14 9-13 41.
CC-Mi. Stefanski 3 7-10 13, Hesse 2 0-0 4, Mer. Stefanski 4 2-2 13, Mor. Stefanski 2 2-4 7, Miller 5 3-3 13, Thomas 1 0-0 2, Lutgen 0 2-2 2. Totals-17 16-21 54.
3-pointers-Oyler (2), Palmieri M; Mer. Stefanski (3), Mor. Stefanski CC.
Records-Metuchen 21-7; Cedar Creek 25-4.