WILLINGBORO — The Middle Township High School girls basketball team went to the locker room frustrated at halftime.
A 3-point basket by Lauren Legler in the final minute of the second quarter snapped a scoreless streak that spanned 13 minutes and two quarters.
The Panthers came out of the locker room refreshed. Unfortunately, the second half wasn’t any better.
Top-seeded Willingboro held second-seeded Middle scoreless in the third quarter and eventually won the South Jersey Group II championship 55-20. The Chimeras (25-4) will play Central Jersey champion Rumson-Fair Haven in a state semifinal Thursday.
It was a disheartening end to a great season for Middle, which reached the South Jersey final for the second year in a row.
“I told the kids, 32 minutes doesn’t define the season we had,” Panthers’ coach John Leahy said. “I’m proud of the season we had.”
After a layup by Holly McKaig put the Panthers up 5-3 early in the game, Willingboro went on a 18-0 run to close out the half.
Middle Township beat Willingboro 53-49 in overtime in December. Chimeras coach Marchelle Coleman instructed her players not to ease up.
“I said, (Middle) has hope. We need to snatch that away from them,” Coleman said.
The result was another 18-0 run in the third quarter that put the game out of reach for the Panthers. By midway through the fourth quarter, both sides had three or four subs in at all times.
Middle Township worked hard to get off shots. Most were contested, but even the open ones just wouldn’t fall.
Meanwhile, it seemed the Chimeras couldn’t miss. La Salle University-bound senior Micahya Owens scored 15 points, Imani Stepney scored 13 and Vanessa Francis added 11 points and seven rebounds.
Willingboro’s full-court pressure defense quickly wore down the Panthers, who entered the fourth quarter with just eight points. The Chimeras defense forced 20 turnovers.
Willingboro, No. 3 in The Press Elite 11, has gotten steadily better since facing Middle Township in the season’s opening weekend. The Panthers handed the Chimeras one of just four losses this season. They had three months to plan their revenge.
“We watched that film from that game over and over and over again,” Coleman said. “But we’re just much better now.”
On the bright side, the Panthers have a promising future. They lose just one senior, Olivia Schwartz.
“We can use this empty, disappointed feeling we have to motivate us. … We’re all disappointed with the way we played, but we have a lot to look forward to,” Leahy said.
Contact Brittany Grugan:
Middle Township 5 3 0 12—20
Willingboro 16 11 18 15—55
MT—Fields 2 0-2 5, Legler 3 0-0 7, Salvo 0 1-2 1, Riggitano 0 1-2 1, McKaig 1 0-0 2, Ruskey 1 0-0 2, Crowding 1 0-0 2. Totals 8 2-6 20.
W—Stepney 6 0-0 13, Mosley 2 0-0 5, Francis 5 1-3 11, Bennett 3 1-2 7, Saud-Lewis 1 0-0 3, Garrett 0 1-2 1, Owens 6 2-3 15. Totals 17 5-10 55.
3-pointers—Fields, Legler MT; Stepney, Owens, Saud-Lewis W.
Records—Middle 19-10; Willingboro 25-4.