VOORHEES — The Paul VI girls basketball team lost back-to-back games in mid-January, falling by five points to Ewing and then getting absolutely crushed by Lenape, 60-34.
That was all the wake-up call the Eagles needed.
Since then, the team has been aces, ripping off nine straight wins, including a dominating 73-28 win over Cinnaminson on Friday night in the South Jersey Invitational Basketball Tournament semifinals. The top-seeded Eagles — in the tournament for the first time — will play for the title on Sunday at 3 p.m. at Eastern Regional High against No. 3 Moorestown, which handled No. 2 Cherokee in the nightcap on Friday.
“We had some tough losses against some good teams, so we had to back to the drawing board. We went back to the little details of the game — how to defend, how to switch up, stuff like that,” said Paul VI head coach Orlando Hidalgo, the father of former Eagles star Hannah Hidalgo, who is now one of the best freshmen in the country as a guard at the University of Notre Dame. “We wanted to see more consistency with the stuff we’ve been working on. It’s tough, when you have a big lead like that it can tend to get a little sloppy. But we have so many good players on this team and I’m able to switch players around. That makes everybody hungry because they all want to get out there and play and do something. That’s what has been keeping them motivated.”
Paul VI (17-4, 5-0 Olympic National) raced out to a 20-2 lead early on behind the stellar play of junior forward Kiyanna Blacks-Stewart, who scored her team’s first 13 points and finished the first half with 17. She went for 21 points in the game and added six rebounds, while Marley Ruiz added eights points and Azanah Campbell chipped in six points and five rebounds. The game was well in-hand by halftime, as the Eagles led 36-7 at the break.
“Since that last loss we had, against Lenape, we bounced back and beat some really good teams,” Hidalgo said. “We beat Caravel Academy out of Delaware, we beat Manasquan. We had convincing victories against those teams, so we’ve shown improvement. This is where we want to be come playoff time. Our conference is one of the toughest conferences you can play in. We want to be playing together, we want to know what to do on rotation side defense, things like that. We want to be playing our best basketball right now.”
Ava Sztenderowicz had 16 points and 13 rebounds for the Pirates (19-7, 4-4 Burlington County Scholastic League Liberty), but no other Cinnaminson player scored more than six points, and Paul VI outscored the Eagles 19-6 in the fourth quarter.
Hidalgo said he likes the way his team is playing right now, but knows how difficult it’s going to be to make a return trip to the state championship game, where the Eagles have lost to St. John Vianney in consecutive years.
“To get there twice and lose, especially last year, was tough,” he said. “We know we have a lot of new pieces this year, but some of the older players who have been here know what it takes. One thing I did was I made sure I saved the game tape from when we lost to St. John Vianney. We showed them that in the beginning of the season to remind them of how hard it is to get to a state championship, and what it requires to get there again.”
Hidalgo said he’s eager for the challenge that Moorestown presents. The Quakers have also won nine straight games and have hit 141 three-pointers in 24 games, an average of nearly six per game.
“We’re in position to play for the championship,” Hidalgo said. “It should be a very good game (against Moorestown), and this is what we want, to be playing our best basketball heading into the state playoffs.”
WHAT’S NEXT: Paul VI vs. Moorestown at Eastern, 3 p.m. on Sunday in the SJIBT championship game. Cinnaminson travels to Rancocas Valley on Tuesday at 5:15 p.m.
Sully, as he’s known throughout South Jersey, began his newspaper career in 1995 and has worked for some of New Jersey’s top papers, including The Asbury Park Press and Press of Atlantic City, as a writer and editor. He’s earned several New Jersey Press Association awards and continues to produce high quality reporting, writing and photography.
A native of Ocean County, Sully played high school baseball at Lacey Township High and college baseball at Pfeiffer University in North Carolina. After a successful 15-year career in the newspaper business, Sully launched Glory Days Magazine in 2013 and for nearly a decade has been bringing fans outstanding and insightful coverage of high school sports throughout South Jersey.