VINELAND — This was supposed to be the season.
The Sacred Heart High School girls basketball team dreamed of winning a state championship from the day practices began. The Lions were compared to the 2005 squad whose state Non-Public B title banner hangs in the school’s gym.
But the Lions will have to wait at least another year, since their remarkable season came to an early end.
Top-seeded Sacred Heart lost to No. 4 Gill St. Bernard’s 64-51 in a South Jersey Non-Public B semifinal Saturday. The Lions (25-2), No. 2 in The Press Elite 11, relinquished a 13-point halftime lead. Sophomore standout Taylor Rooks had 30 points for the Knights (25-4), No. 7 in the Elite 11, who will face Trenton Catholic in the final.
Family and friends consoled the grieving Lions and applauded their efforts as they exited the locker room one by one. It was Sacred Heart’s only loss to a New Jersey school this season.
“I thought this was going to be our year,” Sacred Heart sophomore Lexi Bruno said. “It’s tough to lose.”
Bruno played a phenomenal game with 24 points and five assists. The 5-foot-4 point guard is often a difference-maker in games.
Sacred Heart played a nearly flawless first half. The Lions had no trouble finding open shooters and defensively forced 10 turnovers. Mandy Buirch hit three free throws after being fouled at the buzzer to put Sacred Heart up 30-17.
“We were able to run anything we wanted in the first half,” Sacred Heart coach Steve DiPatri said. “We were able to get some sets we wouldn’t normally be able to.”
The crowd at Sacred Heart was raucous. The foul call made by officials to end the half infuriated the Gill St. Bernard’s coaching staff and fans. At least one spectator was ejected for arguing.
After returning from the locker room, the fired-up Knights played fiercely. They cut the Lions’ lead to two by the end of the third quarter.
Gill St. Bernard’s then went on a 17-2 run in the fourth quarter that closed out the game. The Knights missed only one shot from the field in the final quarter.
Linnett Graber hit a 3-pointer with about one minute to go that put Gill St. Bernard’s up by 11, and DiPatri bowed his head.
“We knew they were a team of runs. We reminded our team of that,” DiPatri said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to withstand their runs.”
Sacred Heart was limited defensively in the second half. Bruno, who had two steals in the first half, was called for her fourth personal foul early in the third quarter. Kennedy Johnson, a 6-foot-2 center, fouled out with 4 minutes, 17 seconds to play.
With Johnson out of the game, Rooks and 6-foot-2 forward Dominique Vitalis were unmatched on the boards.
“We just let up. We didn’t play as hard as we did in the first half,” Bruno said.
It was a disappointing end to a dramatic season.
Midway through the season, the Lions learned their school would close at the end of the academic year. The school rallied behind the girls basketball team, its featured athletic program.
One week after the Diocese of Camden announced Sacred Heart would remain open next year, the Lions won their first-ever Cape-Atlantic League championship.
DiPatri assured his players that the pain following Saturday’s loss would not last long.
“We wanted to get a state championship. Obviously that didn’t happen, but we achieved everything else along the way that we possibly could,” DiPatri said. “To deal with the adversity that we had to deal with and achieve what we achieved is a remarkable feat.”
Contact Brittany Grugan:
Gill St. Bernard’s 7 10 22 25—64
Sacred Heart 14 16 11 10—51
GSB—Rooks 14 2-2 30, L. Graber 3 2-2 10, S. Graber 3 1-2 8, Vitalis 4 1-4 11, Sina 2 0-0 5. Totals 27 6-10 64.
SH—Bruno 8 6-6 24, Buirch 1 4-5 6, Harden 5 0-0 11, Loatman 2 1-4 5, Johnson 2 1-4 5. Totals 18 12-19 51.
3-pointers—L. Graber (2), S. Graber, Sina GSB; Bruno (2), Harden SH.
Records—Gill St. Bernard's 25-4; Sacred Heart 25-2.