By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Absegami girls basketball coach Bob Lasko has had to juggle lineups all season long due to injuries and illness, and at times it looked as though he was keeping the Braves together with duct tape and some glue.
But in Monday’s playoff opener against Toms River South, finally all the puzzle pieces were starting to fit together. And even then the Braves had to overcome turnovers, missed shots and a valiant effort by the Indians to survive and advance. Absegami, the No. 4 seed in the South Jersey Group 3 bracket, scored six points in a 30-second span with less than 90 seconds to play to overtake Toms River South and hang on for a 43-38 win over No. 13 Toms River South. The Braves play host to No. 5 Timber Creek in Wednesday’s quarterfinals.
Mainland Regional, the top seed, and No. 2 Ocean City also advanced. Mainland beat No. 16 Highland 49-24 and will host No. 9 Winslow on Wednesday, while the Red Raiders thumped No. 15 Moorestown, 37-18, and will host No. 10 Seneca, a 53-42 upset winner over No. 7 Cherry Hill West. Third-seeded Toms River East also advanced, beating No. 14 Pennsauken 56-38.
Absegami (16-10) trailed 36-33 with 1:30 to go, but junior Haleigh Schafer was fouled on a driving layup and converted a pair of free throws to pull the Braves within a point, then she scored again to give the Braves a 37-36 lead. Gianna Hafner followed with a steal and a bucket to push the lead to 39-36, but South’s Kelle Anwander kept the Indians in it, nailing a pair of free throws to bring her team within 39-38. With 24 seconds left sophomore Jackie Fortis — who was playing for the first time all season after suffering a thumb injury in the preseason — calmly sank a pair of free throws, and a Hafner rebound on the other end led to an outlet to Schafer, who was fouled. Schafer sank both free throws with 10. 7 seconds left to seal the win.
“We’re family. Before I came back there was a missing piece, but the puzzle just fit tonight. That’s what we can do, we can come back if we’re a family like that,” Fortis said.
“It was frustrating, but we had looks. It wasn’t like we weren’t getting looks,” Lasko said. “I had confidence that our kids were going to find a way to get it done. I thought the play where Schafer went to the hoop and got the foul got us started.”
A big challenge: Anwander presented a big challenge for Absegami, in more ways than one. Anwander, a junior who also plays volleyball and goes better than 6-feet tall, was a problem all night for Absegami’s defense. She scored just four points in the first half but erupted for 14 in the second half, including a putback that gave the Indians a 34-28 lead with about five minutes to go. The Braves countered with sophomore Ayanna “Iggy” Crandall, who scored eight points but, more importantly, got some big rebounds and steals that led to offensive opportunities.
“She just plays with heart all the time. We love her and she has been a great addition to this team this year,” Hafner said of Crandall.
“She’s a sophomore and this is really her first year of basketball, and she came through for us with some big rebounds,” Lasko added. “(Anwander) was tough and she made some big plays, but in the end I think we kind of outworked her. I’m proud of my kids for sticking with it, that wasn’t an easy win for us.”
Added Fortis, “she’s tall. We go against (Mainland’s) Kylee Watson a lot and we were expecting her to be similar. She showed up to play and we had to adjust a lot to her. She played really well, she’s a great player.”
Long-awaited return: The Braves have been waiting all season and hoping Fortis could return in time for the state playoffs, and it was obvious right from the start how big of an impact she is. On the Braves’ first possession, she drove the lane and dished to Crandall for an easy bucket. Those two hooked up several more times on the same play throughout the game.
“She was really upset when I was lost (for the regular season) because I’m the one who usually finds those little dishes to her,” Fortis said. “When I told her I had to get surgery (on my right thumb) she was like, ‘you’re not going to be there to find me.’ I said, ‘I’ll be back, I promise.’ It’s just a connection that has been there.”
Fortis finished with 10 points, as did Hafner, and some huge assists and rebounds that kept the Braves from falling too far behind as Toms River South made a little bit of a run early in the fourth quarter. Fortis said she learned a lot from sitting on the bench for the entire season.
“I got hurt in the first scrimmage so I was literally out the entire season. We lost our first game and it was emotional for me — I cried a bunch of times when we lost, but it definitely gave me a new perspective and I got to see where our errors were coming from so if I got the blessing to come back I would know what to fix,” she explained. “I felt like a second coach and it has opened my eyes to a bunch of new things. I can see what I would have done in certain situations and what I could have fixed if I was on the court, so by the time I got back I made sure I had all those things in line.”
Pressure defense: Lasko went with a full-court press for much of the second half, which led to turnovers and fast-break opportunities, alleviating some of the Braves’ shooting woes. Freshman guard Gianna Baldino was a big factor, as Lasko subbed her in on defensive possessions and put senior Angelina Pollino back in when the Braves regained possession.
“We didn’t shoot very well, but my freshman came through with putting a lot of pressure on them at the end. We got some key turnovers, Fortis hit that ‘and-1’ layup, and that was big,” Lasko said, referring to the play that got Absegami within 36-33. “But, we found a way to get it done. That’s how we’ve been all year. We’ve been short-handed all year, but they don’t quit. I’m just glad to be going on to round two.”
“It was just a team effort. We couldn’t have done it without Jackie and Haleigh, and all the rest of my teammates, by my side. Today just came from within us. We’ve faced a lot of adversity throughout this season, with Jackie being out, but we never let it stop us,” Hafner said. “We knew coming in this was going to be a tough game. We just wanted to make sure we possessed the ball and play our game. It all started with Gianna Baldino, her energy coming out here, she was on fire and that helped the rest of us pick the intensity up.”
Late runs: Absegami went on a 5-2 run early in the third quarter to cut the deficit from 34-28 to 36-33, then finished the game strong, outscoring the Indians 10-5 in the final 2:25 to pull out the victory.
“We knew we had to win, we knew we had to keep pushing and fight,” Fortis said. “We knew we could win, so we were just going to keep fighting until a basket fell.”
“These kids have fought through so much. I think we’ve had five or six kids either injured, with concussions, sick — it’s been a rough ride for these kids, but they haven’t given up at all,” Lasko said. “I think people have discounted these kids, but I tell you what, I like my team and I think we can give some people fits. We’ll have another home game in round two and I’m happy about that.”
What’s next: Absegami hosts No. 5 Timber Creek on Wednesday in the South Jersey Group 3 quarterfinals, time TBD.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays