By Rich Fisher | Contributing Editor
For a brief moment, it looked like all of Trenton Catholic Academy’s hard work in the first half was melting away. Gloucester Catholic scored seven straight points to cut a 14-point deficit in half and Iron Mikes coach Bob Fusik called timeout.
When play resumed, Maniya Custis showed why the night belonged to her.
Custis drained a 3-pointer to start the top-seeded Iron Mikes on a 12-2 run, propelling them to a 74-64 victory over 2nd-seeded Gloucester Catholic in the NJSIAA South Non-Public B championship game at Jackson Liberty High School March 6.
It was TCA’s first sectional title since winning the state crown in 2011, and it puts them in the March 9 state championship game against Saddle River in Toms River.
The Mikes are in the finals thanks to another outstanding defensive effort, along with an explosive night by Custis. The junior scored 25 points and shot 9-for-13 from the field and 3-for-4 from 3-point range.
“I just had to keep my composure, play like it’s a normal game,” she said. “I know the crowd was hyping us up. I just had to be a leader for my team to make sure everyone was calm, and that’s what I did.”
She did it in a big way at the start of the third quarter. Despite the fact Gloucester Catholic shot 18 foul shots and TCA shot none in the first half, the Mikes still emerged with a 38-24 lead on the strength of eight 3-pointers (they finished with 12).
The Rams seemed like a different team after intermission, scoring seven straight to make it 38-31 in just 1:25. After Fusik’s timeout, Custis buried a 3-pointer and the crisis had been averted.
“She gave us a big push with that one,” forward Habbiba Elgizawy said. “She lifted us a lot. When we were getting down, she kept lifting us up.”
Custis agreed that it was a momentum-changing shot.
“We called a timeout, everyone on my team was riled up,” she said. “They saw that they were starting to come back so I had to come out and lead my team. I had to calm everyone down, so I made a shot to let them know we’re still in the game. I think that gave them more confidence.”
It did indeed. After Azanna Baines made two free throws for Gloucester Catholic, TCA scored eight straight and maintained a double-figure lead for the remainder of the game.
“They came and punched us in the third quarter,” Fusik said. “Good teams find a way. We took their punch; they got it to seven, and before you know it we got it back up to 16. So that was very big for us; that’s the key I think.”
Another key was the Mikes usual stellar defense, which forced the Rams into 18-for-49 shooting and 13 turnovers.
“We always want to come out with aggressive defense,” Custis said. “Defense wins games; it doesn’t matter how many shots we make if we’re not getting stops the game is still tied up.”
TCA did a good job on Baines, who averages 18 points and scored 16, but many after the game was decided. Baines just happens to be Custis’ best friend, as the Camden resident previously played for Paul VI before transferring to TCA.
“I know a lot about Gloucester Catholic,” Custis said. “My best friend plays on the team, but I wasn’t gonna be friendly with this team. It was a rival, I just had to play with poise and play my game.”
Her game sparked an offensive explosion, as TCA was unconscious with its 3-point shooting. Giana Boulden hit three 3-pointers en route to 15 points and six rebounds, Leianya Massenat had eight points (two 3-pointers) and eight rebounds, and Naomi Shorts had three 3-pointers and 16 points. Elgizawy’s only basket was a 3-pointer and she grabbed six boards.
“Credit to our whole starting five,” Fusik said. “We had a lunch at 2:30; before that, they’re shooting, after that they’re shooting. They’re just all leaders. What makes us tough is you can stop one and the other one has a great game. It’s just an all-around team effort.”
And it led to an all-around good feeling once the buzzer sounded.
“This is really great,” said Elgizawy, one of just two seniors on the team. “We just love it.”
“This means a lot to us because of Sister Dorothy’s passing,” said Fusik, referring to TCA President Sister Dorothy Payne. “We dedicate this to her.”
The Mikes will be playing for the state title March 9 against a Saddle River team with four Division I players on its roster. Fusik knows TCA is a heavy underdog. “Our approach will be the same, we’ll still play defense, we’ll still practice the same and whatever happens, happens. It’s been a tremendous year.”