By BRIAN CUNNIFF
CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — In her first game since being named a McDonald’s All-American, Kyle Watson proved exactly why she’s deserving of such an honor.
The 6-4 senior forward scored all but three of her Mainland Regional High School girls basketball team’s points in the second half as the Mustangs held off Middle Township, 40-38, in a battle between two of the top teams in the Cape-Atlantic League.
Mainland (10-3) led by as many as seven points in the first half, but Middle Township (11-3) used pressure defense to chip away at the Mustang lead.
Five times in the final two minutes, Middle had possession of the ball while down one to three points but either missed shots or free throws. The Lady Panthers never tied the game or took the lead.
Mainland kept Middle in it by missing all but one of its eight fourth-quarter free-throw attempts. But Middle also missed its share from the line, making just 9 of 16 for the game.
Middle’s Kira Sides had what would have been a tying three-point attempt just miss with 37 seconds to go. She was fouled after getting the rebound but missed the front end of the one-and-one.
Later, Middle’s Kate Herlihy missed a contested shot in the lane with 14 seconds to play. Then, after a Mainland one-and-one free-throw miss, Sides missed on a runner from the right side of the lane with five seconds to go.
Middle never got another clean chance to score.
Watson, an Oregon signee, finished with a game-high 20 points, netting 13 of them in the second half. She scored all of her six second-half field goals on layups as Middle at times had trouble keeping the Mainland star from getting in good positions to score around the basket.
Herlihy scored 16 points and Sides added 10 points for Middle.
“We fought like heck to get back into the game,” Middle coach John Leahy said. “I thought the effort was outstanding, especially in the second half just to battle back. We just couldn’t get over the hump.
“I’m a little disappointed that we had some opportunities but we had some indecision. But at the end of the day, the kids played super hard and we lost to a really good team. (Mainland coach) Scott (Betson) does a great job with his group. We just have to learn from this and move forward.”
The win by Mainland avenged a 52-47 defeat to Middle at the Southern Regional Score at the Shore holiday tournament on Dec. 28. Mainland’s victory also muddles the picture, at least at the moment, in the race for the top seed in next month’s Cape-Atlantic League playoff tournament.
Middle Township’s next game is another important tilt, Wednesday’s CAL United Conference game at Wildwood Catholic.