By BRIAN CUNNIFF
CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — No matter how much we might have been prepared for it, everything surrounding the first regular-season high school basketball game of the pandemic-affected season sure was strange.
No fans in the stands. Those not in the game wearing masks. Every sound made by the players and coaches echoing across the gym. Game officials not touching the ball.
But Tuesday’s boys game between Lower Cape May and Middle Township still gave us what we’d all hoped for — a great contest between two local rivals.
In the end, Middle’s defensive effort over a six minute stretch of the fourth quarter was the difference as the Panthers pulled away for a 55-47 victory in the season opener for both teams.
“This was a big one for us to get,” Middle coach Tom Feraco said.
Ahead 40-35 late in the third quarter, Middle saw Lower Cape May rattle off seven straight points to take a 42-40 lead with a little more than seven minutes to play. But Middle then held Lower Cape May without a field goal for the next six minutes of game time and just one over the remainder of the game to pull away.
“We had poor shot selection and we gave up way too many second-chance points, especially in the first half,” Lower coach Scott Holden said.
John Leahy’s three-pointer from the right baseline midway through the fourth quarter gave Middle the lead for good. The shot highlighted a solid effort from the 6-5 senior, who netted 11 of his 16 points in the second half.
Leahy and teammate Jeremiah Camacho, who also had 16 points, each knocked down three three-pointers in the game.
They each beat the buzzers of periods with three-pointers, Camacho in the first and Leahy in the second.
“The strength of our team is our perimeter shooting,” Feraco said. “We made some timely shots, especially John Leahy. That’s something he’s capable of.”
Freshman Jermain McNeil helped Middle close the game by scoring six of his nine points in the fourth quarter.
Jordan Pierce scored 17 points to lead Lower Cape May. But he was held to only one point in the fourth quarter. Jacob Bey added 15 points in the loss.
Lower Cape May shot only 3 for 26 from three-point range.
“They might not have shot it well but I thought they had some really good possessions most of the game,” Feraco said of Lower. “But then they might have rushed some possessions down the stretch.”
Middle is off until facing Wildwood Catholic on Monday. Lower Cape May plays at Ocean City Thursday.