The girls basketball team knew it was in for a major challenge on Sunday afternoon when it faced Malcolm X. Shabazz High School of Newark in the Group 2 State Championship game.
After all, the stingy defense of Shabazz had allowed an average of less than 33 points per game this season against New Jersey competition en route to a 29-1 record and the #1 ranking in the state.
Offensive production was not really a problem for Point Boro against Shabazz, as the Panthers nearly doubled the average scored against the Bulldogs this winter.
But, playing the pressing, up-tempo style that has worked so well for The Boro over the past three seasons, the Panthers ran into a buzzsaw against a quicker, more athletic Shabazz squad in dropping a 100-64 decision at the Pine Belt Arena on the campus of Toms River High School North.
The victory clinched the fifth straight State Group Championship for the Newark school, a perennial girls basketball powerhouse which annually sends players to major-college programs.
Junior guard Kelly Hughes of Point Pleasant Boro was brilliant in defeat, scoring 30 points (including three NBA-range 3-pointers) and pulling down eight rebounds.
Kerry Malleck and Lauren Hughes scored eight points apiece, while Lindsey Havens and Jess Macchi added seven and six points, respectively, for the Panthers.
Point Boro came out of the gate strong, running the floor with Shabazz en route to a 21-18 advantage at the end of the first quarter.
With 3:30 remaining in the second quarter, and the Boro down only 34-32, Shabazz went on an 18-1 run to break the game open and claim a 50-33 lead at the intermission.
Lightning-quick senior point guard Aliyyah Handford of Shabazz was instrumental in the burst, driving hard to the rim and finishing or dropping off passes to forwards Zaire O'Neil and DeAisha Jones for easy baskets.
Boro came out and scored the first five points of the second half to cut its deficit to 12 points, 50-38, but could get no closer.
Handford turned in a sterling performance for the Bulldogs (30-1), recording 33 points, 11 assists, nine rebounds and six steals. O'Neil and Jones added 23 and 20 points, respectively, and used their superior size to control the boards for Shabazz.
The loss on Sunday, however, will do little to diminish the accomplishments of this year's Boro team.
The Panthers rolled to their third consecutive Sectional Championship, to win the Central Jersey Group 2 Championship last Monday.
A closer look at the Panthers' final season record - 23 wins and 9 losses - reveals the following: five losses to teams ranked among the top three in the state (Shabazz, St. Rose and Manasquan), two other losses to teams in the state Top 15 (Red Bank Catholic, Jackson) and a loss to Nazareth of Brooklyn, arguably the best team in New York City.
Boro also lost to Rumson-Fair Haven early in the season but avenged that defeat by beating RFH twice later in the winter.
All five Point Boro starters - Kelly and Lauren Hughes, Macchi, Malleck, and Havens - will return next season for the Boro, as well as top reserves Brielle Barber and Erin Flynn.
Point Borough Girls Basketball players are already thinking about next year, planning for what they can do even better to top this year's stellar season.
"Next year, we'll look for even more continuity between the players," said Coach David Drew on Sunday.
"All our players are returning next year, so that gives us even more continuity," he said. "We'll keep doing what we do, but better."
While the loss to powerhouse Shabazz was a disappointment, the Borough team comes away with a season that made the town proud.
While Kelly Hughes was clearly a star, the most recent games saw other players come into their own more than ever. Lauren Hughes and freshman Havens shooting more often and more successfully, and the team strategizing and working together better, were just a few of examples of how the team, as a whole, matured and improved during the season.
When asked about how Kelly Hughes shone, but other girls stepped up, especially in the last leg of the season, Drew said, "Kelly's been a great defender for years, but she gives everybody an opportunity to step up. You want everyone involved. I thought our starting five were excellent.
"I give a lot of credit to the girls," he said. "They never quit. They never gave up. Today was the most lop-sided loss we had. If you take away this game, we played some of the best teams in the state and in the country, and did well" and other losses were by slimmer margins, he said.
"We knew coming into this today that we had to hit shots and do a good job on rebound," he said. "But Shabazz is just a great team that outlasted us and ran away."
When asked about how the Borough managed to lead initially, but once they lost it, never got it back, Drew said, "Shabazz is just a very good team that knows not to give up. They stuck to their game plan and thought eventually it would work and it did."
Kelly Hughes said after the game they were simply out gunned.
"We usually try to get a lot of points, and we did, but they got a lot of points too," she said. "Our defense just wasn't good enough today."
Reflecting on the season overall, Hughes said she was happy the team came so far.
"We started slow, we had three straight losses," she said. "For the majority of the season, we weren't even in the top 20. But we finished in the top 12, maybe even better. We are one of the top 12 teams playing today. That's really amazing."