OCEAN CITY — The Ocean City and Middle Township high school girls basketball teams know better than to try to surprise each other.
The players are more than just familiar with each other. Some are friends. Some are AAU teammates.
During the high school basketball season, they are division rivals battling for a spot at the top of the Cape-Atlantic League. The programs plan tirelessly for their matchups, and a true favorite for each meeting is often unclear.
The Red Raiders came out on top this time. Ocean City, No. 4 in The Press Elite 11, defeated No. 9 Middle Township 42-35 in a critical CAL National Division game Tuesday.
“We know each other so well,” Ocean City coach Paul Baruffi said. “It’s really a battle offensively to get a good look at the basket for both teams.”
Ocean City senior Julia Duggan scored 17 points and grabbed 13 rebounds while continuing to play diverse roles on the floor. She scored on trademark pick-and-roll moves, drove to the basket and hit a few long jumpers from the right wing.
The Red Raiders (8-1) are much more than just Duggan, however, and they’ve worked on utilizing their other assets. Each of the six players who saw time made a key defensive contribution or hit a clutch basket. Point guard Katie Johnson sank a pair of free throws that gave Ocean City a double-digit lead with 52.5 seconds left.
Freshman guard Nicole Piergross showed lots of promise. The 15-year-old Upper Township resident scored eight points and has proven to be a formidable outside threat. Her most impressive play was a long 3-point shot at the first-half buzzer to send her team to the locker room up by seven.
“I’ve been working really hard. All the girls really help me out and encourage me at practice and in games,” Piergross said. “It’s been a
Middle Township’s only lead came midway through the third quarter.
Junior guard Lauryn Fields hit a 3-pointer with 4 minutes, 41 seconds left to give the Panthers (6-2) a 21-20 lead. It wouldn’t last though, as Duggan scored on back-to-back possessions from the post with assists from Mary Kate Mateer and Natalie Landi.
Middle spent most of the game trimming away at various Ocean City leads but never appeared to be out of contention.
“You’ve got two teams who are very similar in terms of toughness and ability. There’s no shame in coming to Ocean City and losing,” Panthers coach John Leahy said. “There’s not a lot of teams that are going to come into Ocean City and beat them on their home court.”
Fields finished with 14 points and three assists while Lauren Legler scored 11 for Middle. Ocean City did its best to keep Fields, Legler and Olivia Schwartz closely guarded on the perimeter, but Fields was 4-for-7 from behind the 3-point line.
Middle struggled from the field early, making just 4-of-22 shots in the first half. Leahy told his players the first team to score 40 points would win. He was right.
“Sometimes it just comes down to who’s making shots,” Leahy said. “The most important thing for us is that we stay positive and get better and learn something from this game.”
Tuesday’s game will surely benefit Ocean City when seeding begins for the Cape-Atlantic League playoffs later in the season. Both teams qualified for last year’s inaugural postseason tournament, and the Red Raiders reached the championship game.
When Middle Township hosts Ocean City in February, the Panthers will try to get one back from the Red Raiders. Ocean City holds the bragging rights in this rivalry — for now.
“We’re most likely both going to be there at the end of the year. It’s a great win and I told them to enjoy it, but we’re going to enjoy it tonight and get back to work tomorrow,” Baruffi said.
Contact Brittany Grugan:
Middle Township 3 10 11 11—35
Ocean City 10 10 10 12—42
MT—Schwartz 3 2-2 8, Fields 5 0-0 14, Legler 3 4-4 11, Ruskey 1 0-0 2, Riggitano 0 0-0 0. Totals 12 6-6 35.
OC—Piergross 3 0-0 8, Johnson 1 3-4 5, Mateer 2 1-2 5, Landi 2 1-4 5, Duggan 7 3-8 17, Price 1 0-0 2. Totals-16 8-18 42.
3-pointers—Fields (4), Legler MT; Piergross (2) OC.
Records—Middle 6-2; Ocean City 8-1.