By BRIAN CUNNIFF
NORTH WILDWOOD — The Middle Township and Wildwood Catholic high school girls basketball teams have a habit of playing games against one another that get decided in the final few minutes.
That was again the case on Tuesday.
Middle rallied from a four-point early-fourth-quarter deficit by going on an 11-0 run to close the game to post a 38-31 victory in a crucial early-season Cape-Atlantic United Conference game.
Kate Herlihy’s steal and basket midway through the period began the late surge and drew Middle to within two points at 31-29. She then made a three-pointer with 2:18 to play to give the Lady Panthers (2-0) the lead for good at 32-31. Victoria London and Aubrey Hunter each later made baskets and Herlihy followed with two free throws in the final seconds.
Herlihy finished with a game-high 14 points.
“We said in the locker room at halftime that if we continue to dig in and continue to get stops that our offense would come around,” Middle coach John Leahy said. “It took about 30, 31 minutes for that to happen, but Kate hit a big shot and then we were holding the ball out and being strong with it and we found a couple easy baskets, which was nice.”
Both teams were terrific defensively, although Middle was slightly better. The Lady Panthers forced Wildwood Catholic into an 8-for-46 effort from the field. The Crusaders made just one two-point basket through the first three quarters and were held without a field goal in the opening quarter and to just one field goal in the third quarter.
Middle also out-rebounded Wildwood Catholic, 34-26.
“I thought we were great defensively,” Leahy said. “We stuck to our plan. I thought we were real physical. We had a couple of breakdowns but for most part we were strong. We were disciplined and I thought we did a great job on the glass. We made it tough for them and then we finished a lot of possessions with a lot of defensive rebounds.”
Hunter and Kira Sides each added seven points for Middle. Six of Hunter’s points came in the second half.
Gabby Turco paced Wildwood Catholic (1-2) with 16 points but was limited to only two points after halftime. Crusader standout Marianna Papazoglou was held scoreless in the opening half and finished with five points after fouling out with a little more than two minutes to play.
Middle Township won the CAL United Conference last season thanks in part to two close victories over Wildwood Catholic last season. Wildwood Catholic will try to split the season series when the teams meet again next month.
“It’s still early (in the season) but the most important thing is the belief this kind of win can instill in our group,” Leahy said. “Last year this might be a game that we lose. But a lot of our kids have a full year of experience under their belt and they know what to expect.
“This is two road games in a row – Friday at Holy Spirit (a 45-28 win) and now here — where we did a great job in the fourth quarter. We handled the end. We made big stops and made our foul shots down the stretch. So big picture, this shows growth from 12 months ago and it instills belief. Winning can do that. Winning here against a really good team can instill a lot of belief and a lot of confidence.”