By BRIAN CUNNIFF
LINWOOD — The Mainland Regional High School girls basketball team proved it’s much more than one transcendent player.
Lila Schoen made a pair of critical three-pointers in the fourth quarter and the Mustangs navigated the late stages of the game without McDonald’s All-American Kylee Watson in a 42-36 victory over Middle Township in the opening round of the Cape-Atlantic League playoff tournament Monday.
Mainland (17-5), the fourth seed in the tournament, advances to play top-seeded Wildwood Catholic on Thursday at 7 p.m. in the semifinal round at Ocean City High School. The game will air live on 98.7 The Coast radio, with live video available at the Coast Sports Today Facebook page.
Wildwood Catholic was a 63-33 winner over Absegami in its tournament opener.
Middle Township fell to 19-5.
Schoen’s three-pointer from the left wing with six minutes to play broke a 25-25 tie and gave Mainland the lead for good. She made another three-point shot from the top of the key with less than two minutes to go to extend the Mustangs’ lead to 35-29.
Mainland effectively finished off the game without Watson, who fouled out with 1:29 remaining. Madi Hafetz knocked down two important free throws and Cadence Fitzgerald converted a three-point play to keep Middle from rallying.
“We had some adversity we’re really not used to there, and I’m really proud of the way our kids handled it,” Mainland coach Scott Betson said. “We handled the ball in tough spots, made some plays and made some free throws. And then Lila had the game of her life for us. That three from the top of the key with two minutes left was just huge.”
Middle jumped out to a 12-3 lead to start the game. But Mainland, after switching from man-to-man to a 1-3-1 zone defense, finished the half on a 10-1 run to tie the game at 13-13 at the break. Mainland then went ahead by as many as six points in the third quarter, only to see Middle take the lead early in the fourth on a three-pointer by Kira Sides.
But the Mustangs outscored Middle 19-11 the rest of the way. Fitzgerald had a big fourth quarter, scoring seven of her eight points in the frame.
Watson scored 13 points before fouling out to lead Mainland. Schoen got all 12 of her points on four three-pointers.
“We didn’t finish enough plays,” Middle coach John Leahy said. “We had opportunities and open looks, especially in the first half, but we didn’t finish. And I didn’t feel like we got one break the whole game.”
Sides scored 14 of her game-high 18 points in the fourth quarter to lead Middle. Kate Herlihy added 12.
Both coaches were critical of the seeding process that pitted the teams against one another in the opening round. Many observers thought Mainland and Middle both should have been seeded higher than fourth and fifth, respectively.
“To me, it seems incredibly unfair that one of the three best teams in the league got knocked out in the first round,” Betson said. “I don’t really know how to explain it. In my mind, this was a game that should have been played later in the tournament, not in the first round. The only thing we can do about it now is look at it as something the league needs to consider moving forward, that it’s probably time to think about how we’re seeding this thing and see if we can do better.”
Leahy was equally blunt.
“I don’t want this to sound like I’m whining here because we lost and I definitely don’t want to take anything away from Mainland because they deserved to win this game and I wish them all the luck going forward,” Leahy said. “But I know Scott Betson’s saying the same thing about how this tournament was seeded. They made a mistake. I have 15 girls crying in the locker room right now and I’d just like to have someone from the seeding committee come talk to my girls and explain why this tournament was seeded the way it was.
“This should not have been a first-round game. The seeding committee made a mistake and all it does is affect the kids.”