CAL Playoffs: Mainland Girls Hold Off Middle Twp.
LINWOOD — The fourth-seeded Mainland Regional girls basketball team knew it was in for a battle in the opening round of the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament on Monday evening. Middle Township wasn’t your average No. 5 seed — the Panthers came in with a 19-4 record, had won eight straight games and had gone 11-1 in the CAL United Conference, tying with Wildwood Catholic, the No. 1 seed in the league tournament.
But Mainland has perhaps the best player in the state in senior University of Oregon commit Kylee Watson, and although she had just four points in the first half and fouled out late, she did plenty in between to help guide the Mustangs to a 42-36 victory and a date against No. 1 Wildwood Catholic in Thursday night’s semifinals at Ocean City High School at 5 p.m.
The Mustangs (17-5) couldn’t buy a bucket for much of the first half, going scoreless for about eight minutes after an opening 3-pointer by junior guard Lila Schoen, but they ripped off a 10-1 run to close the first half even with the Panthers, 13-13. Mainland suffered through a slew of turnovers and missed opportunities, including four straight missed free throws at the end of the third quarter, but Schoen and Watson came up with some big shots in the fourth quarter to send the Stangs on to the semis.
“We definitely faced some adversity in that game, just not really running our offense, and I think the nerves got to us a little bit. But this shows a lot about our team, being able to overcome in this game and make the right plays when we needed to,” Watson said. “Lila played amazing, she shot the ball so well, and everyone contributed in every single way tonight. It was a really great team win.”
“I hate to say it but it’s kind of been a trend with us starting off slowly, but we kind of just regrouped and stayed focused. We get our energy and keep our morale up and we just want to come back,” said fellow senior Madi Hafetz. “(The early deficit) was daunting because they are a great team. They know how to stay focused and they can knock down shots when they have to.”
Kira Sides nailed a 3-pointer to start the fourth quarter and give Middle Township (19-5) a 25-23 lead, but just as quickly the Mustangs tied the game when Schoen fed sophomore forward Cadence Fitzgerald underneath, and Mainland took the lead for good when Schoen drained a three with a little less than six minutes to go. From that point on, Mainland outscored Middle 14-11 to seal the win, despite Watson fouling out with 1:29 remaining.
White-knuckle finish: Without Watson on the floor Mainland had to find a way to keep a six-point lead intact in the final two minutes, and the Panthers made that very difficult by creating turnovers and hitting big shots. After a pair of free throws from Fitzgerald, Sides nailed another three to pull Middle within 37-32 with 1:01 left, then Katie Herlihy scored off a stolen inbounds pass to get the Panthers within 39-34 with 24 seconds left. But Fitzgerald, who has had a great February after cracking the starting lineup, came up with a traditional 3-point play with 9.8 seconds left to give Mainland a 42-34 lead.
“It was tough not being out there but I did all I could to cheer on my teammates. They did amazing,” Watson said. “Alyssa (Turner) came in and played some great minutes. Even though it might get overlooked, she came in and controlled the ball; Lila played well and Cadence had a huge ‘and-1’ and I’m so excited for her, she’s been playing really well. It’s more fun when everybody is scoring.”
Quite a challenge: Middle is a very talented team that features experienced players such as Sides, Herlihy, Maddie Barber and Aubrey Hunter, and they made it tough for Mainland to get any kind of separation. Sides finished with 18 points, including 14 in the second half, and Herlihy added 12.
“Middle is an amazing team and they have been very successful this year, so we knew coming into it this would be a tough game and a physical game. But it was a great game to be a part of, the atmosphere was great and it was fun to be a part of it, especially overcoming that first quarter that we had,” Watson said.
“We went into the game knowing Kira is an awesome player, Katie is an awesome player, Maddie Barber plays super tough, Aubrey Hunter can knock down shots — their whole team can do things,” Hafetz added. “We knew they were going to knock down shots, but we just had to do what we’ve been doing.”
Making contributions: Schoen came off the bench last year for a Mustangs team that won the Group 3 state championship, but she has emerged as another scoring threat to go along with Watson, Hafetz and Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, also, has been playing very well, including in late-game pressure situations. Watson finished with 13 points to add to her school-record total, but Schoen and Fitzgerald combined for 20 off Mainland’s 42 points.
“It’s perfect timing. This is the time when everyone needs to play together, make the right passes, play good offense, good defense,” Watson said. “I think it’s good that we’re starting to click right now. In the CAL Tournament we’re going to play good teams and that will prepare us for the South Jersey tournament even more.”
“Lila, I’m so happy for her, she’s definitely boosted her confidence. She’s always like, ‘I don’t know if I should shoot that shot because the defender is on me.’ And I scream at her, ‘I believe in you, we all believe in you, have confidence and you can knock them down.’ She missed a few in the first half, but then she made the ones she needed to make,” Hafetz said. “This is huge. It boost our confidence immensely. We’re happy, but the tournament’s not over yet, there are still some great teams. It will be fun.”
What’s next: Mainland takes on Wildwood Catholic on Thursday night at 5 p.m. at Ocean City High School in the CAL Tournament semifinals. Atlantic City faces Ocean City at 7 p.m. in the other semifinal. Middle Township hosts Oakcrest on March 3 at 5:30 p.m. in the opening round of the South Jersey Group 2 tournament.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays