TOMS RIVER — Just before the opening tipoff in Sunday’s state Group I championship game, the Cedar Creek High School girls basketball team gathered in front of its bench and chanted, “I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!”
The Pirates then made good on that prediction, earning a state title in just their second year of existence with a 50-38 victory over Whippany Park at Pine Belt Arena on the campus of Toms River North High School.
Cedar Creek (26-4) became the first Cape-Atlantic League girls basketball team to win a state championship since Absegami won Group IV titles in 2005 and 2006.
The Pirates are seeded sixth in the Tournament of Champions and will play third-seeded Manasquan, the Group II state champion, at 8 p.m. Tuesday here.
“I’m so happy that we won that I just started bawling when the game ended,” Cedar Creek sophomore guard Mercina Stefanski said. “This means so much for us and for our school. Our team has heart and our fans have heart.”
When the final buzzer sounded, approximately 100 students sporting “Creek Crazies” T-shirts screamed and applauded. A few minutes later, when Pirates junior center Kristine Miller and her teammates came rushing toward them, they tumbled out of the bleachers and joined the team in a heart-felt celebration that featured a lot of hugs and tears.
The group included seven guys who had painted “Go Creek” in green paint on their bare chests and sported the last names and jersey numbers of some of the players on their backs. The one who had “4” emblazoned on his torso rushed toward sophomore guard Mikila Stefanski, the Pirates’ No. 4, and hoisted her over his head.
Miller received a ride on the shoulders of roughly a dozen fans while the rest of the Cedar Creek fans yelled until they were hoarse.
“We only have 600 students in our school and it seemed like they were all here supporting us today,” Pirates coach Francine Raph said. “This is just amazing. We had the support of the entire town and the girls really played their hearts out.”
One final push
The Pirates’ determination and tenacity really came through in the fourth quarter. Whippany Park (25-6) never led but continued to fight. After falling behind by 12 points late in the third quarter, the Wildcats cut Cedar Creek’s lead to just four points, 39-35, on Olivia Dudley’s 3-pointer with 5 minutes, 16 seconds left in regulation.
Cedar Creek responded when sophomore guard Morgan Stefanski fed junior guard Michelina Hesse for a layup.
That started an 8-0 Pirates run that put them back in control at 47-35 with 1:44 to play.
Miller scored six unanswered points during the surge and scored 10 of her game-high 22 points in the fourth quarter. She also snared a game-high 13 rebounds and blocked two shots as part of the Pirates’ terrific defensive performance.
“I felt like I had to do whatever I could do for us to win,” Miller said.
Cedar Creek won because of its defense. Raph relied almost exclusively on a man-to-man alignment that pitted Mercina Stefanski against Whippany Park star Olivia Dudley.
Dudley, a 2,000-point career scorer for the Wildcats, finished with 16 points but had to work for every shot. With Mercina Stefanski buzzing around her like a gnat, Dudley missed her first five shots and had just three points at halftime.
The other Pirates also played great defense, especially in the second quarter, when Whippany Park was held to just three points.
“That was our lowest scoring total in a quarter all year,” Whippany Park coach Tom Wilson said. “You certainly can’t afford to have that happen in your biggest game of the year. It turned out to be too much for us to overcome. Kudos to Cedar Creek. They definitely deserved to win the game.”
The win capped a thrilling ride through the state tournament for the Pirates, which the fans replicated with a roller-coaster cheer at the end of the third quarter.
Because they have no seniors and just two juniors, the Pirates were expected simply to build this year on the steps they took in their inaugural season. Instead, will be hanging a state championship banner in their gym.
“We may not have much experience, but we have confidence,” Miller said. “This is what we’ve been dreaming about since the first tryouts on the first day of practice — to win a state championship.
“This means so much to us. I love my team and we love our fans.”
Contact David Weinberg:
Whippany Park 8 3 16 11—38
Cedar Creek 11 8 13 18—50
Whippany Park—Simon 2 0-0 5, A. Dudley 2 4-4 10, Boyadjis 0 0-0 0, O. Dudley 6 0-0 16, O’Connor 3 0-0 7. Totals 13 4-4 38.
Cedar Creek—Mi. Stefanski 2 2-2 7, Hesse 2 2-2 6, Me. Stefanski 1 1-2 3, Mo. Stefanski 3 4-4 12, Miller 8 6-6 22. Totals 16 15-16 50.
3-pointers: Whippany Park, O. Dudley (4), A. Dudley (2), Simon 1. Cedar Creek, Mo. Stefanski (2), Mi. Stefanski CC.
RECORDS: Whippany Park 25-6; Cedar Creek 26-4.