By Mike Gurnis

For the New Jersey Herald

When it fell behind by nine points in the first quarter against the last remaining undefeated team in the state of New Jersey, it appeared that the Sparta girls basketball team was going to suffer the same fate of the previous 27 teams that faced Montville.

With Sparta's freshman-heavy lineup, many could have expected that rough first quarter to bethe prelude to Montville to running away with it in Friday's NJSIAA North 1, Group 3Tournament sectional semifinal.

But rather than buckle under the pressure, Sparta embraced the challenge.

The third seeded Spartans settled into the game after the first quarter and took a one-point lead into halftime. Then, in the fourth quarter it took over with a stunning 18-5 run to pull off a 62-47 win over second seed Montville at Montville High School.

It was yet another impressive victory for a starting lineup which includes four freshmen. It is almost unheard of for a team to start that many freshmen. even more so to reach a sectional final, which is exactly where Sparta is headed.

It will travel to face top seed Ramapo in the final on Tuesday.

“We were playing with house money,” Sparta head coach Catherine Willie said. “I got kids who are young, they're hungry, and they want to do it. They had nothing to lose tonight and they just played their game. They wanted this win. They just went out and proved it.”

Sparta was buoyed by that big fourth quarter, which saw freshmen Ally Sweeney and Brynn McCurry combine for 15 of the 18 points in the game-deciding run. Sweeney finished with a game-high of 23 points to go along with eight assists, while McCurry tallied 16 points and seven rebounds.

That run included several big free throws by those two, as nine of their points were on foul shots. It was certainly not an easy task playing in front of a standing room-only, raucous crowd at Montville.

But this squad was not going to get rattled by the moment and did all it could to shift the pressure over to the Montville side.

“We knew coming into this that (Montville) had everything to lose,” McCurry said. “We're freshmen coming into this, we weren't undefeated. We've experienced it years before (including middle school) when we were undefeated, every game we were worrying about staying undefeated, and so we knew we had nothing to lose. We just had to come out here and play our game.”

Willie added, “We've never had this many people in a gym, so I was very impressed with their composure after the first quarter. It would've been very easy for four freshman to roll (over).

“My senior (Olivia Bouma-Hannam) and my sophomore (Alexa Acker) picked up and played awesome help side-D, and we were able to control the tempo. Once we did that, we realized we could do this, and they did it.”

After the way the first quarter went, it certainly appeared that it was not going to be Sparta's night. It fell behind early and trailed, 17-8 after the first frame, as Sparta missed several shots and could not get into a rhythm offensively.

But the Spartans started to settle in during the second quarter, as it went on an 8-2 run behind five from Sweeney to close the gap to just one. It was back-and-forth for the rest of the half and through the third quarter, which is when Sparta really started to assert itself.

“It was a matter of settling in,” McCurry said. “We knew that coming into this about their threes, but we'd never really seen it in person and they were just hitting them.

“But we knew we couldn't give up, and we just had to keep pushing and trying to climb back into the game and that's exactly what we did.”

The fourth quarter saw Sparta essentially shut down a very potent Montville offense, while showcasing its own offense.

Montville had not surrendered more than 50 points in a game to any opponent this season, but Sparta managed to put up 62 in this one.

“These girls want it. When people push against them, they're not rolling (over),” Willie said. “They're going to push back. They want to show that they can do this, and they do it.”

More importantly, Montville prides itself in creating turnovers and scoring off the fast break.

Sparta took great care of the ball in the final frame, and didn't allow the Mustangs to get out in space like they're accustomed to.

“We're taking the care of the ball,” Sweeney said. “We were just boxing out and getting stops on defense. Once we get the ball on offense, Coach Willie said guard the ball like it's your heart and don't let them get it. And that's what we did.”

Bailey Chapman, also a freshman, finished with 10 points for Sparta, including three 3-pointers. Sophomore Alexa Acker added nine points in the win.

Now, Sparta will look to do the nearly-unthinkable on Tuesday in the sectional final, as it will look add to its already-impressive resume which includes a Hunterdon Warren Sussex Tournament title.

All with a once-in-a-lifetime freshman core leading the way.

“It feels great because obviously we've been working this whole season,” Sweeney said. “But I know for me, Brynn, and all of the freshmen and our bench, too, they've been working since fourth grade. To be playing basketball all of our lives, it feels great to get here.”