IC junior Toni Blanford goes up to score on of her 20 points against East Orange during the Lions’ 53-52 win in the Essex County Tournament quarterfinals.

by Andrew Garda

EAST ORANGE — It went down to the final second, but the No. 5 seeded Immaculate Conception girls basketball team held on for a 53-52 victory over the No. 4 seeded East Orange Jaguars in the quarterfinal round of the Essex County tournament.

The win propelled IC to a game against top-seeded University in Weequahic on Wednesday night for a shot at a spot in the finals.

The two teams had traded leads for much of the game, until East Orange took a 49-45 lead with just over two minutes remaining in the game. A basket by Toni Blanford brought the Lions to just 2 points down, but the Jaguars called a full timeout and then drew a foul coming out of it. They managed to hit one of their two free throws, pulling their lead back to 3. But Jailyn Lucas dropped a 3-pointer to tie the score, then Blanford was fouled and added a point from the charity stripe to give Immaculate a 51-50 lead with just over a minute left.

“She came up really big by hitting that 3-pointer at the end, putting the momentum in our favor,” head coach Anne Lauterhahn said of Lucas’ shot.

Nasira Williams added to Immaculate Conception’s lead with a pair of free throws, but the Jaguars responded with a basket of their own, making the score 53-52 with 8.8 seconds left.

Senior Amaya Santiago goes over two East Orange defenders for a basket during Immaculate’s 53-52 quarterfinal win in the Essex County Tournament.

Immaculate had the ball on an inbound pass, and East Orange managed to steal it. The Jaguars flew up court for one last shot, only to have their layup bounce off the rim as time expired.

“After the lead slipped away we just kept telling them that it was not over,” Lauterhahn said. “We told them before the game that EO has a tough group of girls and they were going to fight until the end, so we had to be ready for them.”

Lauterhahn said that the Jaguars’ loss of their star guard, Briana Mills, to an injury late in the game had helped the Lions.

The win came as a relief for a team which, if they had lost, would have been done for the season. The Lions have no berth in the NJSIAA tournament due to three disqualifications resulting from a fight in a game at Belleville High on Feb. 6, so the Essex County tournament games are truly win or go home.

The fight also left the Lions short one player on Saturday, as Angela Mangual was still out due to the incident.

While that left the bench a little thinner than normal, Lauterhahn and her staff used what they had masterfully, substituting players frequently and in some cases situationally. They weren’t shy about throwing a player in the mix for a quick defensive stint, then replacing her with another who might be more of an offensive weapon.

This also allowed IC to keep their starters from getting too winded, as Lauterhahn could give them plenty of breaks when they needed it.

And they did need it, as the Jaguars certainly tried to wear the Lions out, using frequent full-court presses in the first half. East Orange swarmed on inbound passes in the Lions’ end, trying to force a mistake and, for a time, rattling IC.

“We haven’t seen too many full-court presses this season,” Lauterhahn said. “I think the girls let the pressure get to them in the beginning.”

IC’s Amaya Santiago lets a shot loose during the Lions’ 53-52 win over the East Orange Jaguars in the Essex County Tournament quarterfinals on Saturday, Feb. 17.

Lauterhahn said that once the team adjusted, they were able to turn the tables on East Orange.

“As they calmed down we started to easily break the press, resulting in layups on our end, which is why EO pulled it back,” Lauterhahn said.

The Lions kept up the aggressive offense all game. The reason the Lions had so many free throws at the end was in part because they were still driving the lane.

“This was actually the closest game the girls played in all year,” Lauterhahn said. “Instead of trying to hold the ball out and risking turning it over, we decided to stay with what the girls know, being aggressive.”

That aggression was a big part of why the Lions played Wednesday against University.

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