Millan’s stellar night lifts Lower Moreland past Villa Joseph Marie, into states

LOWER MORELAND >> It had been 22 years since a Lower Moreland girls basketball team had qualified for the state tournament.

Thanks to a career night by senior Rachael Millan, that drought is over. Millan, with a little help from her teammates, turned in the best game of her Lions career, posting a career-high 33 points and plenty of heroics as Lower Moreland rallied for a 52-51 win over Villa Joseph Marie in their District 1-4A semifinal game Friday night.

And even with all that, it still came down to a heart-stopping final shot by VJM.

Only after Annie Whalen’s long 3-pointer at the buzzer hit the back of the iron and dropped to the floor could the Lions celebrate. In the center of a screaming huddle of jubilant players, Millan let the emotion take over.

“We worked really hard and we deserved it,” Millan said. “I’m so happy it happened as part of my senior year. At the end of the game I cried, both my friend Jordyn Cohen, who’s our other senior, and I cried because we were so excited and we worked so hard this year.”

Villa Joe’s physicality gave the Lions a lot of trouble all game. The Jems got a lot of second chance shots and hit a number of tough perimeter shots that, on any other night, would have lifted them to the win. Even with Millan’s remarkable performance, VJM nearly won the game.

But once Millan got it going late in the first quarter, she wasn’t going to slow down. The Chestnut Hill signee missed her first shot and her first two free throws but scored the last four points of the first quarter to make it an 8-8 game after eight minutes.

The Jems tried several different players, but none of them had anything capable of stopping Millan. The senior, who scored her 1,000th career point earlier this season, had all 10 of the Lions’ points in the second quarter, draining a pair of 3s and scoring the final five points as LM took an 18-16 lead to halftime.

“She’s got such a quick first step, they really didn’t have anybody that could stay with her off the dribble,” Lower Moreland coach Richard Becker said. “She did a nice job of attacking and staying aggressive. She’s one of those players that once she gets going, you give her the ball and you let her do what she wants and just set rules for the rest of the team. When she starts getting hot like that, you stay out of her way.”

About the only thing Millan didn’t do well on Friday was hit her free throws. The guard was 8-of-14 at the line, but her constant attacking of the rim, especially in the second half, was invaluable in the later stages of the game.

Off the foul line, the three stages of Millan’s offensive game were clicking. She shot 3-of-4 from 3-point territory, and was 11-of-16 overall for the game, splashing midrange jumpers and getting to the rim. Whatever shot she wanted was there and the senior used the momentum she generated off the dribble well, letting it carry her away from defenders when she rose up to shoot.

“Everyone’s energy got me going,” Millan said. “It was really important. Our school hasn’t gone to states since [1995] so we knew it was a big deal. We all wanted to go to states, go to the district final and win.”

Having scored 14 of the team’s 18 points at halftime, Millan knew she couldn’t win the game by herself even though was likely going to have to take over. That’s why the senior didn’t point to any of her baskets as a turning point but instead the one she assisted to start the third quarter.

Millan dished to sophomore Allison Asman for a short jumper, which went in for a 20-18 lead but also showed the other girls they could make their shots as long as they were willing to take them.

“All year long, this team’s been very unselfish,” Becker said. “One of the things we talked about after our Jenkintown game that we lost is the other girls can’t look to Rachael all the time. It makes us too easy to defend. We have to trust each other and Rachael did a nice job with that, she didn’t press and the other girls came up when we needed them.”

Millan put the Lions up 25-24 on a free throw with 4:12 left in the third, but Villa Joe outscored her 10-5 the rest of the quarter and took a 34-30 lead into the final frame. Then the Jems made some shots, with a 3-pointer by Megan Mulhern staking VJM to a 37-31 lead with 7:14 left in the fourth.

Another trey by Annie Whalen, who had a terrific game for VJM, put the Jems up 40-33 and after four straight points by Millan, Marisa Morano’s hoop put the visitors up 42-37 with 4:33 to play.

“I’m just saying keep playing hard and if you mess up, let’s just get it back,” Millan said. “I turn the ball over, I forgot a play, I just had to get myself together. The freshman help bring it back and make us all work hard.”

At that point, it would have been easy for Millan to just take every single shot the rest of the way, but she didn’t force anything and let the offense play itself out. That decision paid off when Ceili Courduff buried a 3-point shot from the right corner with 2:50 left to cut the deficit down to two.

It took one stop and 20 seconds later, Millan knotted the game 42-42 on a left wing jumper then with 1:53 left, she buried her last shot of the night, a three, for a 45-42 lead.

A steal and layup by freshman Nicole Castor capped the 10-0 LM run and while the Lions wouldn’t trail again, they were far from advancing. VJM kept scoring and a pair of Whalen free throws cut the lead to 51-49 with 40 seconds left.

Cohen split a pair of foul shots for a three-point lead with :24 on the clock. The Jems missed a three, but Whalen got a put-back with two seconds left and Millan accidentally called a timeout on the baseline trying to inbound. In the heat of the moment, the senior said she was thinking of college rules where the clock stops after a make and made what she thought was the safe play.

That set up an inbound and an errant pass found its way to Whalen well past the arc. The Villa Joe sophomore let it fly and every Lower Moreland heart in the gym stopped for the split second before the shot caromed away from the rim as the horn sounded.

“I was just thinking ‘please, please don’t go in,’” Becker said. “I couldn’t handle that. The shot went up and it was straight and I just thought ‘I can’t believe this.’”

“I was so nervous,” Millan said. “I don’t even know what to say, I was just so nervous.”

Lower Moreland will play in the District 4A title game on March 4 against either Gwynedd Mercy Academy or Nazareth Academy.

“Rachael, she was huge and she wanted the ball down the stretch,” Becker said. “In a game like this, when it means so much and they’re trying to shut her down, she still scores 33 and that means something. She had a career-high in the biggest game of her career. I think Chestnut Hill is getting a steal.”

Lower Moreland 52, Villa Joseph Marie 51
Villa Joseph Marie 10 6 18 17 – 51
Lower Moreland 8 10 10 22 – 52
Villa Joseph Marie: Whalen 7 6-7 21, Morano 3 0-0 6, Mulhern 2 0-0 5, Ebe 1 3-4 5, Keehfus 2 1-4 6, Hobbib 3 0-0 8. Totals: 18 10-17 51.
Lower Moreland: Rachael Millan 11 8-14 33, Allison Asman 1 0-0 2, Jordyn Cohen 1 1-2 3, Ceili Courduff 1 4-4 7, Nicole Castor 2 2-2 6, Alexandre Krutsinger 0 1-2 2, Riley Malone 0 0-2 0, Jimia Davis 0 0-0 0. Totals: 16 16-26 52.
3-pointers: VJM – Hobbib 2, Keehfus, Whalen, Mulhern; LM – Millan 3, Courduff.

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