By BRIAN CUNNIFF
MANCHESTER TOWNSHIP — The Middle Township High School girls basketball team extended its season as far as it could.
In the end, it simply couldn’t beat one of the best teams in the state. And there’s certainly no shame in that.
The Lady Panthers couldn’t overcome a slow start and fell, 52-39, to Manchester Township in the South Jersey Group II title game Monday.
The defeat ends an extraordinary era in Middle Township girls basketball. Middle, which started four seniors, appeared in three South Jersey finals over the past four seasons. All three ended in defeats to Manchester Township,
“It;s really frustrating and disappointing,” Middle senior Kira Sides said. “We worked really hard to get here and all of us, especially the seniors, really wanted to win.
“But I feel like we don’t have any regrets. We all put the work in. Just getting here is a great accomplishment but it stinks not winning.”
Top-seeded Manchester Township (27-4), the defending state Group II champion and ranked fourth in the state entering the tournament, jumped out to leads of 7-0 and 15-2. Middle never fully recovered.
The third-seeded Lady Panthers twice reduced its deficit to within striking distance. A Kate Herlihy layup cut the Manchester lead to five points in the second quarter and an Aubrey Hunter field goal got Middle to within six points in the third quarter, But both times, the Hawks responded with runs of their own to keep Middle from closing further.
Middle (23-7) had no answer for 6-3 junior forward Destiny Adams. Adams, no question a future McDonald’s All-American candidate, poured in 21 points and gathered 20 rebounds in her team’s win.
Middle entered the game as a decided underdog. But even though the Lady Panthers never appeared to threaten, they also prevented Manchester from putting the game away completely until the final two minutes.
The loss ends the careers of Sides, Hunter, Sophia Terenik and Maddie Barber, the team’s four senior starters. Middle won 47 games combined over the past two seasons.
Herlihy scored 13 points to lead Middle. Sides added seven. Hunter finished with 11 rebounds.
Middle also got solid contributions from its bench. Sophomore Lynasia Harris scored eight points and freshman Jada Elston added six.