By Tom Robinson, NEPA Elite News
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – The Hoop Group created its Girls Showcase League at essentially the same time Kevin Clark created the NEPA Elite program.
By the time the pandemic-delayed 2020 AAU basketball season concluded, the NEPA Elite Clark 17U team was able to claim the distinction of being the first HGSL champion.
After Monday, the team can make another claim – as the only 17U HGSL champion.
The NEPA Elite Clark team repeated its title on the HGSL’s highest division.
“It feels great,” Ciera Toomey said. “Obviously, we won last year.
“Just to win and show that we are just as good this year felt really nice.”
NEPA Elite duplicated last year’s championship performance by repeating the same winning formula through the final two rounds of the tournament Monday to come out on top of the Hoop Group Championship Weekend at the Atlantic City Convention Center.
The trio of Toomey, Kylie Lavelle and Moriah Murray scored in double figures in both games as third-seeded NEPA Elite knocked out the two higher-seeded teams by opening double-figures leads, then fighting off comeback attempts.
NEPA Elite avenged one of its losses from earlier this season when Toomey scored 20 points, grabbed 7 rebounds, dished out 4 assists and blocked 3 shots in a 57-51 semifinal victory over the DMV (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) Lady Tigers.
Moriah Murray, working through injury issues throughout the tournament, came straight from the athletic trainer’s table to the court to begin the second half by scoring 11 points without missing a shot in the first 5:10, sparking the decisive run in a 50-39 victory over the top-seeded Empire State Blue Flames-Nick team.
Toomey, the only Class of 2023 player on a team otherwise made up of players heading into their senior year, led in points and rebounds in both wins. Lavelle was the second-leading scorer in both games and Murray did her part in slightly reduced playing time.
Murray entered the tournament with back issues after a hard collision and fall late in a championship game loss at the PBR Super 64 National Championships in Dallas, Texas just days earlier. Teammates tried to sneak a peek at her progress after she left the featured court area to receive medical attention following the aggravation of an old ankle injury.
There was good reason for their curiosity.
With Murray on the floor running the show Monday, NEPA Elite was plus-30. Without her, the team was minus-13.
The difference was even more pronounced in the title game when NEPA Elite outscored Empire State Blue Flames, 42-21, in the 19:10 Murray played, but was outscored, 18-8, in the 12:50 it was forced to try to get by without her.
“The other girls just feed off her,” Clark said. “She’s such a leader.
“She’s really fun to coach.”
Murray was at her best immediately after her return to action in the final
Empire State had begun cutting into a 15-6 deficit by hitting a 3-pointer while Murray was down behind the play on the other end of the floor. The Blue Flames crept within 23-19 by halftime.
Murray, who had four assists in the 5:44 she played in the first half, took just four shots in the game, but she made all four and they all came during the first 5:10 of the second half when NEPA Elite shot out to a 37-24 lead.
Empire State’s Tori Fernandez matched the 3-pointer Murray had hit to open the half.
Murray then started and ended an 11-2 run with a 3-pointer and a floater in the lane. In between, Murray had another 3-pointer and Kaeli Romanowski also hit one.
“She’s unbelievable,” Clark said. “When she gets going, you’ve got to just keep feeding her. Especially in that final game, for the championship, she had about a four-minute stretch where she just couldn’t miss. So, I just kept trying to put the ball in her hands, get her in spots where she could be comfortable and she did her job by knocking them down.
“I think it really swung the game for us. It opened that lead a little bit.”
The lead reached its highest point at 45-31 on back-to-back baskets by Trinity Johnson, but the Blue Flames scored the next eight points to get within six on a 3-pointer by Dana Phelan.
They did not score again.
Anna Scoblick made two free throws with 1:54 left, Olivia Smelas added one of two with 1:18 to go and Toomey provided the clinching reverse layup off a Lavelle pass with 30 seconds left.
Toomey finished with 14 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists. Lavelle added 12 points, all in the first half. Both shot 5-for-10 from the floor.
Murray had 11 points and a team-high 5 assists.
Lavelle went 4-for-6, including 2-for-3 on 3-pointers, to finish the semifinal with 13 points and 6 rebounds.
Murray finished with 11 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals.
The team’s other two starters, also the other two to play in both HGSL championship wins, played supporting roles. Romanowski had five points. Maria Belardi hit a 3-pointer and shared the assist lead of four with Toomey.
Murray put NEPA Elite to stay. She followed up her drive for the last of four early lead changes with a 3-pointer.
Lavelle converted a Romanowski steal and Toomey’s reverse layup completed the secondary break, making it a 9-0 run to a 14-6 lead with 9:53 left in the half.
The lead reached double figures twice in the first half, first on a Kaci Kranson free throw, then on two Lavelle free throws.
DMV scored the last four points to make it 28-22 at halftime.
Toomey had six points and Lavelle hit a corner 3-pointer in a 9-1 run to the game’s biggest lead, 50-35, with 3:55 left.
Two 3-pointers and two baskets off steals allowed the Lady Tigers to storm back with a 12-1 run to get within 51-47 with two minutes left.
Murray scored NEPA Elite’s last six points. First, Toomey beat a trap to find her alone for a layup to stop the DMV run. Then, after the Lady Tigers made it a four-point game one last time, Murray hit both ends of a one-and-one twice in the final 38.7 seconds for a 57-49 lead.
Toomey, who continued to cement her status as one of the nation’s top women’s basketball prospects, and Murray are Dunmore High School teammates. Riverside’s Lavelle will be Murray’s teammate when both head to Drexel University on National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I basketball scholarships.
Romanowski is from Western Wayne and Belardi from Scranton Prep.
Scoblick from Abington Heights, Johnson from Wyoming Valley West and Kranson from Holy Cross were part of other teams in the NEPA Elite program last year.
Smelas and her Jim Thorpe High School teammate Leila Hurley were new to the program and championship team this year.
“I just think all 10 of us helped get that win,” Toomey said. “I think that’s what’s unique about this team.
“It’s not five or six people. It’s everyone.”