You can spend a lot of time dissecting the Asbury Park lineup to find reasons why the Blue Bishops are on the upswing.
They have exceptional length in the frontcourt with freshman Porschia Witherspoon and senior Kaysannah Wesley, a rugged competitor on the glass in junior Sonida Oliver and speed on the ball whenever senior Imani Wright is pushing it up the floor.
Each brings a different dynamic to the court but all of them share the one intangible that is reviving a once proud program to aspire to its former heights.
“We have girls that are dedicated, that want to play and that care,’’ the 5-3 Wright said. “It feels good that we work so well as a team. This is a good team that can do something.”
The desire was evident in how hard Asbury Park competed on the offensive glass in the first half, prolonging possessions in search of results. A passion was noticeable on defensive end where the Blue Bishops clogged passing lanes to create turnovers. And, the hunger to seize a victory was captured over the final six minutes, when a 15-point lead had been pared down to five with plenty of time left for the type of painful setback Wright previously had been accustom to suffering.
But, with three critical free throws over the final 55.9 seconds, the hard-nosed point guard matched her career-high with 22 points and punctuated the dawn of a renewed vibe at Asbury Park by securing a 56-48 triumph over gritty Keansburg on Thursday in Asbury Park.
“We put our hearts into it,’’ said Wesley, a senior forward, who accumulated four steals within an active halfcourt defense that generated 30 turnovers. “Emotions flare from time to time, but it’s because we care. And, at the end of the day, we put ourselves back together again like a family.”
At 6-6, Asbury Park, which has four state titles and four Shore Conference Tournament championships to its credit, is at the .500 mark for the first time this late in a campaign since the 1999-2000 season when it went 16-7, the last time it posted a winning record.
The breakthrough can be credited to Asbury Park’s willingness to compete on every possession. Of the 48 rebounds it ripped down, 28 were cleared on the offensive boards, including 17 in the first half when it built as much as a 28-13 lead. Oliver, a junior forward, powered her way to 16 rebounds and netted nine of her 11 points off her hustle on the offensive glass.
“I’m excited about this team,” Oliver said. “There is a whole new attitude and it comes from the heart.”
When Witherspoon scored inside off a dish by Kelsi Salazar to start the third quarter, Asbury Park owned a 32-17 advantage and was on the verge of pulling away.
However, Keansburg (6-8) mounted a hearty challenge behind a more concerted rebounding effort of its own. Sophomore forward Laniyah Overton-Thomas came off the bench to score 12 of her 14 points in the second half to go with a dozen rebounds. Nadya Szanislo, a senior forward, followed suit, grabbing 10 of her 13 boards after the break and scoring six of her 10 points over the final eight minutes, including a putback and two free throws that enabled Keansburg to creep within 52-47 with 1:29 left in the game.
Although that was as close as the Titans would get, the work ethic it displayed in coming back was not lost on their coach.
“We just get out to slow starts,” Keansburg coach Tim O’Halloran said. “It takes a little while for us to get going. Sometimes, we run out of time, but I was proud of the way we played in the second half. We did battle back.”
The win was another step towards respectability for Asbury Park, which harbors aspirations of getting a taste of the post season.
“This game was big because we have a chance to go to the state tournament,” said Witherspoon, who collected a season-high 16 points to go with 13 rebounds, two assists, six steals and three blocks. “We did a good job.”
In other action from Thursday...
Freehold Township 55, Manalapan 40: Junior Ryan Jackson dropped in a career-high 10 points and senior Michelle Johnston also scored 10 for Freehold Township (12-3). Jasmine McCall topped Manalapan (4-10), which had a three-game winning streak snapped, with 16 points.
Gregg Lerner covers girls basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @GreggLerner