By BRIAN CUNNIFF
RICHLAND — The Mainland Regional High School girls basketball team held a 16-15 lead after one quarter against Middle Township in Thursday’s Cape-Atlantic League Tournament semifinal at St. Augustine Prep.
“I can’t remember the last time we let up 16 in a quarter,” Middle coach John Leahy said.
But Middle’s defense reverted back to its norm and then some, limiting the Mustangs to nine points the rest of the game.
Middle’s final three-quarter effort defensively made up for some deficiencies offensively as the Lady Panthers eventually pulled away for a 34-25 win over shorthanded Mainland to land in the CAL title game for the fourth time in the last six seasons.
The CAL title game will be played Saturday at noon at Richard Stockton University. The game will be broadcast live by 98.7 The Coast, with a live video stream available at CoastSportsToday.com.
Mainland played Thursday’s game without Kylee Watson, who was out with injury. Watson is not only the Mustangs’ top player but the 6-4 junior is also considered to be one of the top high school girls basketball players in the country.
But even without Watson, Mainland competed throughout. Despite scoring just seven points over the second and third quarters, Mainland held a 23-22 lead late in the third quarter until Middle’s Kira Sides rattled home a baseline jump shot with 1:06 to go in the period for Middle’s only points of the period.
The teams went a long time without scoring in the fourth quarter until Aubrey Hunter’s basket midway through the period sent Middle ahead by three at 28-25. Maddie Barber then sank two free throws and the Lady Panthers beautifully executed a sideline inbound play to free Sides for a wide-open layup to put Middle ahead at 32-25 with 41 seconds to go.
“I was happy with how we managed the end of the game,” Leahy said.
Mainland (22-3) netted only three field goals — one in each period — over the final three quarters.
“For whatever reason we were definitely a step slow defensively in the first quarter,” Leahy said. “We just kind of tuned in a little bit more after that. I think we bore down, we fought through screens better, we were more physical and we rebounded a little bit better.”
Watson’s absence clearly affected Mainland, but freshmen Camryn Dirkes and Kaitlyn Boggs, who each scored nine points, helped the Mustangs stay in the game to the finish.
“Give Mainland credit. The played their hearts out. We’re fortunate to move on,” Leahy said. “They came out with so much effort and belief and toughness and we struggled with that early but we found a way.”
Middle and Ocean City faced each other in the 2016 and 2017 title games. Both went to overtime, with Middle winning in 2016 and Ocean City taking the contest in 2017.
“It really is a great game to get to,” Leahy said. “I love this tournament. Not only do you get to test yourself against good teams but it’s a great warmup for the state tournament next week.
“You know Ocean City will be ready. It’ll probably be a typical Middle-Ocean City game. Both teams will be prepared. Hopefully we can figure out a way to come out on top.”
Sides led Middle with 15 points. Hunter added six.