When asked if her players had been thinking about a rematch with the Cherokee girls' basketball team, Toms River North coach Vicki Gillen smiled.
"I may have mentioned it to them," she said.
Actually, the Mariners looked as if they'd been caged up, thinking about nothing but last year's South Jersey Group 4 title game, when Cherokee beat them on their home court — a buzzer-beater to seal the championship.
Tuesday night, revenge was clearly on the players' minds when they entered the Cherokee gym. Toms River North was visibly fired up and physical throughout. Despite a strong comeback in the fourth quarter to make it a one-possession game by Cherokee, it was too much for the Chiefs to overcome in a 41-34 loss in the sectional championship.
"I'm just so proud of my team," said Chiefs senior guard Katie Cummiskey. "I knew we weren't going to go down without a fight, but the end just wasn't the outcome that we wanted."
Nine of Cummiskey's 10 points were scored on three-pointers in the third quarter. The three shots kept Cherokee afloat during a rough period in which it got beaten on the glass and bogged down by turnovers.
The Chiefs, down by as many as 12 in the period, went into the fourth trailing by 30-21 after Cummiskey hit a three with 22 seconds left. She accounted for all of her team's only points in third as momentum shifted entirely in Toms River North's favor.
But the Chiefs didn't go away and opened the final period on fire.
Kennedy Wilburn — who led all scorers with 14 points — scored the first six of the period, and four of those points were off steals.
A free throw by Alexa Therien with 5:10 left capped a 10-0 run by Cherokee and brought the score to 30-28.
"Ever since the game last year, we knew this wouldn't be easy," Wilburn said. "We did our best to fight. We got it to within two, but they responded."
The Chiefs (25-3) couldn't complete the comeback largely because of Toms River North's ability to continue to create turnovers. And though the Mariners (27-3) had hit just 1 of 6 free throws through three quarters, the team hit 5 of 6 in the final period to ice the win.
"We didn't play well, obviously, but I think Toms River North had a lot to do with that," said Cherokee coach Ron Powell. "I think they controlled the tempo of the game, they had us confused defensively at times. You have to give them credit."
The Chiefs fell short of their ultimate goal, but Cherokee won the South Jersey Invitational title and went undefeated in Olympic Conference play with one of the youngest cores in South Jersey. Cherokee graduates five seniors but will return starters including Wilburn, a sophomore forward; leading scorer Ava Therien, a junior; and freshman forward Alexa Therien, who appears to be a star in the making.
Alexa Therien, in her first season in the postseason spotlight, sat for much of the first half as she battled foul trouble. Her team went into halftime down by six. It was a sign of inexperience. But the team's talent was obvious.
While Cherokee was clearly upset after the game, when asked about the team's future, if she was already thinking about next year, Wilburn managed a smile.
"Yep," she said. "And the year after that, too."
Toms River North 8 10 12 11 – 41
Cherokee 8 4 9 13 – 34
TRN: Brielle Bisogno 10, Amanda Johnson 12, Jenna Paul 14, Lindsay Cabey 5.