Clark lifts St. Rose to Shore crown
Don’t let the rugged 6-3 frame that seems custom-designed to handle the rigors that come with banging in the paint fool you. There is a delicacy to Sam Clark and it resides above the powerful body of the St. Rose senior.
So, in the biggest game of the season and arguably her career, Clark decided it was time for physical to overtake mental. To recognize there was no room for passivity and plenty of space for her to unleash a level of controlled aggression that would begin in the blocks and only expanded thereafter to other areas on the floor through a downright dominating fashion, one, quite frankly, Manasquan may not have been prepared for.
“I was nervous,” Clark said. “I had no self confidence. I hadn’t been playing good in the Shore Conference Tournament through the first three games. So, I was nervous I was going to come out like that…sluggish.”
There was nothing remotely sluggish about Clark’s overall performance. From the way she forcefully posted up on the blocks, backing defenders so low, they were under the basket to retrieve her deposited layup, to an assertiveness on the glass and even into her unheralded passing, which included a brilliant touch pass generally reserved for the most polished of playmakers, Clark was at her absolute finest in a contest that demanded nothing less.
The Fordham-bound Clark erupted for 28 points, cleared 10 rebounds, dished out four assists, rejected two shots and, perhaps unbeknownst to her, provided something even greater.
Her composed leadership was a beacon that sophomore Sarah Kurtz and freshman Cat Phipps admired and emulated with quality contributions that carried second-seeded St. Rose, No. 3 in the MSG Varsity New Jersey Top 15, to a 65-56 victory over top-seeded and second-ranked Manasquan on Friday night in the Shore Conference Tournament final at Monmouth University in West Long Branch.
“The first time she went for an offensive rebound and she went and got it, I knew right from that point Sam was here to play,” St. Rose coach Joe Roman said. “She was physical right from the start. She was strong and demanding the basketball. I’m very happy for her. She played at the Sam Clark level.”
The triumph scored a measure of revenge for a 43-39 setback St. Rose (25-1) suffered at the hands of Manasquan (24-2) on Feb. 11 and provided the Purple Roses with their first SCT championship since 1993. And, it was the product of a noticeable change in demeanor embodied not just by Clark but every player who set foot on the court for St. Rose.
“It’s really difficult to come back on them so we had to get up early,” senior guard Diana Malanga said. “Once we got up, we really didn’t want to lose the lead. We kept pounding the ball to Sam inside. She played awesome.”
Yet, it was the 5-6 Malanga who set the St. Rose tenor for the evening by brashly penetrating past Manasquan to access the lane and seize the area where she could make things happen. She dished off to Kurtz for the game’s opening bucket and laid off another feed for Clark to put away on the opposite block to give the Belmar school a 4-2 advantage that it never surrendered.
She pierced through once more moments later only to kick out to Clark for a wide-open 3-pointer and her generosity proved contagious.
After striking for five points in a 13-9 first quarter, Clark cut to the basket for an apparent layup only to deliver a wonderful touch pass to Kurtz on the left wing for a trey that pushed St. Rose’s advantage to 18-11 with 5:30 showing in the second quarter.
“I saw (Manasquan's) Michaela (Mabrey) coming on to me and I didn’t want to get a charge or throw a bad shot,” said Clark, who accounted for 10 points in the first half to fuel St. Rose to a 29-23 lead at intermission. “I saw Sarah standing there, so I touched and hoped it got there and it did and she knocked it down for us.”
Kurtz and Phipps seemed to always be ready and willing to deliver when called upon. Kurtz, who started her second straight game, had 11 points while Phipps came off the bench to supply 13 points, including a 7 for 9 showing at the foul line.
Trailing, 48-37, entering the fourth after Morgan Barry canned a 3-pointer to end the third for St. Rose, Manasquan mounted one final rush. The Warriors used a 14-5 tear, fueled by seven points from freshman Marina Mabrey, to get within 53-51 following a pair of foul shots from sophomore Katelynn Flaherty, who finished with a team-high 18 points.
However, St. Rose displayed the needed poise down the stretch to convert 12 of 16 foul shots over the closing 2:22, highlighted by Phipps, who went 7 for 8 in that span.
“I was really happy I could come through for my team and make those foul shots,” said Phipps. “I try not to show any emotion on the court and stay calm in those spots. Everyone was really there for me and that helped a lot.”
St. Rose shot 6 of 13 from behind the arc and finished 27 of 38 at the line. Defensively, senior guard Kasey Chambers shined on the court she will call home for the next four years. The Monmouth recruit was handed the unenviable task of guarding All-American Michaela Mabrey and limited the 5-11 Notre Dame-bound guard to 12 points to go with her dozen rebounds.
“Every time in the huddle, I said to everyone ‘you gotta relax’ because that will keep you under control,” Chambers said. “Once the adrenalin gets out of control, there isn’t much you can do.”
Gregg Lerner covers girls basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @gregglerner