By BRIAN CUNNIFF
CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE – The Middle Township High School basketball teams showed how important defense can be in their first-round state playoff openers on Monday.
The girls team, seeded third in the South Jersey Group II Tournament, held No. 14 Overbrook without a point through three quarters en route to a 57-9 victory. In the nightcap of the doubleheader, the boys team, seeded sixth, used its defense and rebounding to overcome a poor shooting effort in a 47-43 result over No. 11 Pennsauken Tech.
Middle was a heavy favorite in the girls game but still had some trepidation entering the contest since star junior Jada Elston and her 17 points per game were sidelined due to injury. But her teammates more than picked up the slack, racing out to a 21-0 lead after one quarter and cruising to an easy first-round win.
Junior forward Mia Elisano got Middle rolling early by scoring five quick points and senior guard Brianna Robinson led a balanced scoring effort with 12 points in the victory over the overmatched Rams. Freshman Riley Morrow was also in double figures with 10 points for Middle (18-9), which had 10 different players score points and had 14 players see at least a few minutes of action.
The Lady Panthers will host No. 11 Collingswood in the next round on Wednesday after Collingswood upset No. 6 Haddon Township, 29-27. Elston’s availability for that contest will most likely be a game-time decision.
The spirited boys game saw Middle Township fall behind by as many as seven at 19-12 in the second quarter before the Panthers rallied. After scoring the last four points of the second period, Middle reeled off the first six of the third to take a lead it would never relinquish.
Middle won despite suffering through one of its worst shooting performances of the season, the Panthers making just 13 of 52 shots from the floor overall, including a paltry 2 for 20 from three-point range.
But the two three-pointers were big ones. Bubba McNeil’s long range shot that beat the third-quarter buzzer gave Middle a 29-23 lead going into the fourth. Midway through the fourth, Michael Zarfati’s three-pointer extended a three-point lead to seven at 40-33.
Middle also was poor at the free-throw line through three quarters, making just 10 of 19 tries. But the Panthers were brilliant from there in the fourth quarter, knocking down 9 of 10, all in the final two minutes.
Middle also out-rebounded Pennsauken Tech by a wide margin, 36-23.
Zarfati led all scorers with 16 points in the win. Bubba McNeil (12) and Anthony Trombetta (10) also each reached double figures.
The Middle boys will travel to No. 3 seed Haddonfield on Wednesday. Haddonfield was a 54-26 winner over No. 14 Lower Cape May.