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Zoe Brooks’ buzzer beater pushes St. John Vianney past Paul VI in monumental S.J. Non-Public A final

The St. John Vianney girls' basketball team celebrates its 63-61 come-from-behind victory over Paul VI in the South Jersey Non-Public A final at Seneca High School in Tabernacle, New Jersey on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. Kevin Emmons/South Jersey Sports Zone

TABERNACLE (N.J.) - Zoe Brooks winced in pain after a lane drive that resulted in a nifty finish at the rim in the first quarter of the South Jersey Non-Public A final.

It was only two of the St. John Vianney senior's game-high 33 points, but it ignited the Lancers' offense and sent a message about her toughness.

Brooks' game-time status was uncertain as a foot injury sidelined her for two playoff games. In the end, the North Carolina State commit wouldn't be denied.

Brooks traveled the length of the floor with 18.8 seconds left and delivered a buzzer beater to lift the Lady Lancers past Paul VI, 63-61, in an epic South Jersey Non-Public A final at Seneca High School on Wednesday night. St. John Vianney captured its third sectional crown since 2020.

"I'm just passionate," the North Carolina State commit said. "I wouldn't let my team down. I gave them all I had."

"We ran a play, and I knew they were overplaying me," Brooks said, "so I had to come back around, and I knew I didn't have much time, so I just took the shot I'm most comfortable with."

St. John Vianney, ranked seventh in the latest MaxPreps Top 25 girls high school basketball rankings, rallied from a 12-point deficit at halftime to improve its record 31-0. The Lady Lancers haven't lost to an opponent from New Jersey since 2019.

Paul VI went on a 17-8 run in the second quarter to lead by as much as 13 points. Notre Dame commit Hannah Hidalgo and guard Shariah Baynes defended opposing dribblers ferociously to force steals that translated to fast break layups. The Eagles also found themselves in the double bonus early in the second quarter and made seven free throws throughout the period. Paul VI led, 34-22, at intermission.

Brooks rattled off 13 straight points for the Lady Lancers in the third quarter and gave her team its first lead, a 39-36 cushion, since a 6-5 advantage early in the first quarter. St. John Vianney outscored the Eagles 20-6 in the third quarter to offset a sluggish opening half and establish a 42-40 advantage.

"We were embarrassed," Brooks said. "That was probably one of the worst halves of basketball we ever played. We knew that this could possibly be our last game and we just gave it all we had."

Seven lead changes occurred in the fourth quarter. For each St. John Vianney score, Paul VI had a response.

Hidalgo cut the deficit to a point with a step back 3-pointer with 7:02 left to play. Shortly thereafter, Barnes gave the Eagles the lead on an assist from the two-time South Jersey Sports Zone Player of the Year.

Brooks marched down to regain the lead for the Lady Lancers.

Back and forth.

Azanah Campbell gave Paul VI its final lead of the contest before St. John Vianney responded with an 8-0 run to establish a 56-50 cushion.

The Eagles tied the contest on two separate occasions with a pair of 3-pointers from junior Eva Andrews, but they could not get ahead.

St. John Vianney senior Janie Bachmann drew a foul with 41.9 seconds left to play to book a trip to the charity stripe with the contest tied at 58-58. Bachmann hit the first attempt and missed her second, but rebounded her own miss and scored to give the Lady Lancers a 61-58 lead.

Bachmann tallied nine points and five rebounds. Fellow senior Ashley Sofilkanich charted 11 points, six rebounds and three steals. Bre Delaney answered the call on defense.

"They had us on our heels the first half," St. John Vianney coach Dawn Karpell said. "They came out and punched us right in the nose. We kind of challenged our kids at halftime to play just as hard and play a little bit more inspired. ... The seniors answered the call. They all stepped up."

Andrews' second triple in a 50-second span knotted the game at 61-61 with 18.8 seconds left.

The rest was history.

Karpell called a timeout to design a play for the North Carolina State commit. There was no better option than Brooks to instill trust into with the sectional title on the line.

"She's just special that way," Karpell said. "She's not a vocal type (of) leader. She's a little bit silly actually a lot of the times. But when it's competing and winning time, Zoe Brooks just brings it to another level. I just can't even explain what she has in her. She gets this tunnel vision, and she just goes."

St. John Vianney will advance to play Immaculate Heart in the NJSIAA Non-Public A state final this weekend at RWJBarnabas Health Arena in Toms River.

Paul VI concluded its campaign with a 21-3 record and finished as sectional finalists for the second year in a row. Hildago posted a team-high 19 points, seven assists and seven steals. Baynes finished with 14 points and Andrews chipped in 13.

"We fought hard all season, but the two best teams were out here," Paul VI coach Orlando Hidalgo said. "I give credit to coach Dawn, she's an excellent coach. To go all the way down to the buzzer with two points, as a fan, you can’t ask for nothing more. As a coach, player and a parent, it’s tough to swallow.

"I'm so proud of them. We played everybody and anybody that we could. We didn't back down from nobody. ... We have a team that never quits and it took a last second shot to take us out."

With the Tournament of Champions now defunct, Wednesday night's battle the top two teams in the state delivered a similar feel and lived up to the hype.

An instant classic.

"This was a big game," Brooks said. "This was bigger to us because this actually meant something. We play as a team and I love them."

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