NEWARK – A half-hour after St. Elizabeth had dispatched Caravel, 60-46, for the girls’ state basketball championship Monday night, Jocelyn Rodriguez had yet to leave the floor of the Bob Carpenter Center.
First, the star guard and lone senior on the Vikings’ roster joined her teammates celebrating with their schoolmates. Then she accepted the champions’ trophy and cut down the last section of the net, which then rested around her neck. It was off to meet the media after that. Finally, she made her way to the corner of the arena, where her family patiently waited.
Rodriguez scored 20 points and provided a steady hand when things got tense in the fourth quarter to lead the top-seeded Vikings (20-4) to their first championship since 2007 and fifth overall. She shot seven of nine from the field and had 10 of her points in the final stanza. Rodriguez said the win was the realization of a goal the squad had pursued since before school started last fall.
“Words can’t describe what I feel right now, especially for Mr. (Tom) Ferrier. He inspired me this whole year, summer league, fall league. We told him last year that we were going to leave him with the state title. And we have a lot of returning players. We have a really strong starting lineup; I hope we can bring him more,” Rodriguez said.
For Vikings coach Ferrier, this team, his 16th on Cedar Street, was a pleasure to coach. “We have great players. At times, they become role players, and at other times they know how to take over the game and put the ball in the basket. I wouldn’t trade this team for anything in the world.
“We told the kids before the game, win it for yourselves, win it for your classmates, win it for your parents, win it for the parish. The last thing we said was win it for Jocelyn Rodriguez because she won’t have another chance, and we did that,” he said.
Neither team shot well in the first quarter, which ended with St. Elizabeth up, 8-6. The Vikings scored the first six points of the second quarter and were in control much of the rest of the way, taking their largest lead, 28-11, late in the stanza. The Buccaneers, seeded third, made just 23.1 percent of their shots in the first half (6-26), and St. Elizabeth dominated the rebounding. As a result, Caravel was limited on most possessions to one shot, while St. Elizabeth often got second and third looks on its offensive end.
Trailing by 12 as the fourth quarter began, Caravel turned up the defensive pressure, and St. Elizabeth committed several turnovers to let their opponents back into the game. Led by Ky’Asia Stanford and Caroline Davis, the Buccaneers battled back. A three-pointer by Davis cut the lead to 43-37.
The Vikings simply lost their focus, Ferrier said. “There was no reason to rush the basketball. We had the lead. You have to tell them that once in a while. But that’s the style we play.”
The Vikings responded like an experienced team does. Rodriguez took a 60-foot inbounds pass from Macy Robinson for an uncontested layup, and after Stanford made it 45-39 with 3:48 left, Rodriguez answered with a three-pointer, then hit two free throws to push the lead to 11, and the countdown was on. The Vikings hit six of seven free throws down the stretch – they finished 14 of 15 from the charity stripe – to help put the game away.
Rodriguez was not alone in providing offense for the Vikings. Three of her teammates also reached double figures: Thomas (14), Hackendorn (12) and Robinson (10). St. Elizabeth shot 49 percent for the game and was 10-for-15 in the second half. The Vikings also grabbed 43 rebounds – 11 of them on the offensive end -- to Caravel’s 23. Robinson led the way with 13.
When Ferrier went to his bench in the final minute, Rodriguez was the first starter to leave the floor, and she did so alone. With 36 seconds left, she walked off the court for the final time, but not before Gabby Julian gave her a warm embrace and the “VK Nation” rose from their seats for a standing ovation. Robinson was next, followed by Sabrina Hackendorn, Julian and Alex Thomas.
Hackendorn said Rodriguez deserved the attention. “She’s everything to this team. She’s our only senior; she’s our leader. She’s the one that keeps us calm, has all our inside jokes. And we knew we wanted this, not just for ourselves, but for her.”
Hackendorn was also happy for the St. Elizabeth fans, who showed up in force among the crowd of 2,060. Her family has a long legacy at the school.
“St. E’s always has a great community, and all my family went to St. E’s. It’s just amazing to have this feeling. My dad grew up telling me about all the St. E’s legends, and to just have this right now, it’s just amazing,” the junior said.
Caravel, which finished the season 18-6 and reached the final for the first time, received 12 points each from Stanford and Yasmin Walker and 11 from Davis. The Bucs’ coach, Kristin Caldwell, said the Vikings played well, but she expects her Buccaneers to be back.
“I can’t say enough about my kids. I know they’re taking it very hard right now, but the great thing is … we have three sophomores and a junior in the starting five, so we’re going to be back. There’s no doubt about that,” she said.