OCEAN CITY — When Mainland hosted rival Ocean City on Jan. 3, the Mustangs had a 24-point lead at one point in the second half. Stangs coach Dan Williams knew his counterpart, Ocean City’s John Bruno, wasn’t going to let that happen again when the teams met on the other side of the 9th Street bridge on Monday night.

That first meeting ended with a 63-62 Mainland win as Ocean City made a furious fourth-quarter comeback, and the second act was nip-and-tuck the whole way, with Mainland finally putting the icing on a 62-58 win in the final 12 seconds with free throws from seniors Jake Cook and Zach Matik.

Williams said the plan was simple — don’t let the Red Raiders get a lead, like, ever. He knew if Ocean City was able to get out in front the Mustangs would have a tough time coming back because the Red Raiders are so good at handling the ball and hitting free throws. In the end, it was Mainland’s ability to do those two things — thanks in large part to Cook and Matik crashing the glass and guys like Luke Mazur, Ja’Quan Mace and Kareem Spence taking care of the rock — that helped the Mustangs stay unbeaten in the Cape-Atlantic League National Conference race.

“They should have been riding some momentum with what they did in the fourth quarter the first time around. I’m sure they had to be feeling really good coming in, and (Bruno) always has a really good game plan. He’s fantastic as what he does. And any team that has a guy who has the ball in his hands as much as Gannon Brady, and who is as good as Brady, you’re never going to run away from a team like that. We had to do everything from Ja’Quan to Kareem, to Jake at the end (to guard Brady), but you can’t wear him down. Somehow, that kid has more juice in the fourth quarter than he has in the second quarter. It was a matter of us making just enough plays,” Williams said. “You can’t go down on this team after having been up. It’s too deflating. They are not a team that’s built to give up a lead, they have too many kids, like (Joe) Repetti, who knows how to handle the ball and knocks down his free throws. We were like, ‘we might not be able to get (the lead) to 10 or 12, but don’t let it get to negative one or two. Just stay on top, whatever it takes.”

“Give them a lot of credit, in the first half they hit a lot of threes, and our goal coming in was to limit that. They got them and they made them, and that was the key. And every time we’d make a little bit of a run in the second half, they would go on a run. It got to 49-47 but then they scored a couple baskets and we had to fight to get back,” Bruno said. “It was back-and-forth, back-and-forth, and they got away a little bit, and we just kind of ran out of gas there at the end. Their guard play is much better than I think people thought it would be coming into the season. Especially at the end, running clock and forcing us to foul. But, we had our opportunities. The playoffs are still around the corner and these games are good for us to get ready. Who knows, we might see them again. We’ll just try to keep getting better with every game.”

Dialing long distance: Mainland hit a 3-pointer to start the game and Tony Tamanini nailed another to give the Mustangs (12-4, 7-0) a 13-7 lead, and right from the jump the Mustangs never trailed. Mainland hit six threes in the first half to take a 29-25 lead into halftime. At one point, after a Mace 3-pointer, Mainland led 29-19, but Ocean City (7-7, 4-3) finished out the first half on a 6-0 run.

Ironically, the Mustangs hit just one 3-pointer in the second half, but did shoot 12-of-19 from the free-throw line, including 9-of-14 in the fourth quarter.

Cook-ing up a plan: The way the Stangs typically wins games is by having Cook score in the paint and give them a rebounding presence. When he’s able to do that it opens up the outside for shooters like Mazur, Mace, Tamanini and Spence. Cook sat virtually the entire second quarter in foul trouble and Ocean City took advantage, outscoring the Mustangs 13-11.

“Having Jake for the entire second half was huge,” Williams said. “That one play toward the end, he just never stops trailing the play and he comes in with a left-handed putback (to make it 58-49). He basically caught it with that huge mitt he has, in mid-air with his left hand, and dumped it in.”

“I didn’t play at all in the second quarter because I picked up two early fouls, so I had to sit and that always sucks because it’s a rivalry game. But, even though I didn’t play in the second quarter, we talked (at halftime) about coming out with the same mentality to play together as a team, move the ball well on offense, crash the boards, go get putbacks and hit our free throws,” Cook said. “Everybody on the court tonight could match up with anybody, so it was a game of hustle. It’s the team that’s going to come out and execute its plays and not have a lot of turnovers.”

Added Bruno, “give them credit, they definitely have overachieved from what people thought they could be. I know Mazur hits a lot of shots, but Cook is the one who does all the dirty work around the basket. And he’s that fourth ball handler, so he’s hard to match up against.”

Raise the roof: Monday night’s game, as it usually is when these teams meet on the basketball court, was standing room only, and when Mainland was trying to hit free throws to ice the game in the final minute, the Dixie Howell Gymnasium was as loud as it has ever been.

“It was awesome, especially being a senior and sweeping them. And when we come here it’s like a home atmosphere because all our fans come out. But all their fans come out, too, and when they come to our place it’s the same thing,” Cook said. “I honestly like it better when it’s super loud like that. I’d rather have it super loud than quiet. I can concentrate better when it’s like that.”

“It was fun. For years, that’s what the Ocean City vs. Mainland rivalry was, both crowds going back and forth with good play on the court,” Bruno added. “In the long run, these games are a lot of fun. The crowd is the key, as long as they stay in order, and they did tonight. I’ve been in so many of these — and it’s difficult because I’m such good friends with Dan and his staff, it’s hard for me to call it a rivalry.”

Confidence builder: With a relatively inexperienced roster, a win like the one over Ocean City could go a long way for the Mustangs, who are trying to win a division title, earn entry into the upcoming CAL Tournament and be considered a factor in the South Jersey Group 3 playoffs. The top two teams in each of the CAL’s three conferences get an automatic bid to the league tournament, which begins in mid-February.

“This will definitely boost our confidence because we swept our rival, but we can’t get too cocky,” Cook warned. “We played great, but we can’t sleep on other teams. We just have to come out and bust our butts every time we come out and play.”

“Obviously, this is huge for the conference. We have a lead; we still have most of the way to go back through, but to get Ocean City behind us is huge,” Williams said. “Today was our 16th game for power points, so we feel confident we’ll be either a No. 4 or No. 5 seed (in the state playoffs), which would mean at least one home game and if you’re lucky maybe you get two, who knows?

“They are understanding their roles. The only thing they are not doing as much as our staff would like is feeding Jake. Luke understands he’s a scorer no matter who is in the lineup, but if Jake is out he really has to step up, which he did. He hit some huge shots for us in that first half, and Ja’Quan made the right plays and knocked free throws down. Kareem came off the bench, Tony hit a three, Nana (Osunniyi) played well — so right now we have seven or eight understanding what we’d like them to do, and they’re doing it, which is great.”

Stats: Mainland put four players in double figures, as Cook led the way with 18, Matik and Mazur each added 11 and Mace finished with 10 points. Brady finished with a game-high 23 points, including three 3-pointers, for Ocean City, while Tom Finnegan added 14 and Repetti 13 for the Red Raiders.

What’s next: Mainland travels to Oakcrest on Wednesday at 6 p.m. Ocean City hosts Wildwood on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays