O.C. photo

Ocean City's Natalie Landi, left, grabs a rebound over Middle Township's Olivia Schwartz, right, at Middle Township High School on Tuesday.

Edward Lea

CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE - One thing senior Julia Duggan never had done in her illustrious basketball career at Ocean City High School was win a game at Middle Township.

With some help from a freshman, Duggan finally did it Tuesday night - and clinched the Cape-Atlantic League National Division title outright in the process.

Duggan had 14 points and eight rebounds, freshman Nicole Piergross added 12 points and the Red Raiders held off a furious Middle Township rally to win 52-44.

"It's nice to beat them twice in one year," a smiling Duggan said. "It's really nice."

Ocean City (16-2 overall, 12-0 CAL National) and Middle (13-6, 8-2) are the top two local teams in The Press Elite 11 rankings - No. 3 and No. 10, respectively. The Red Raiders beat the Panthers 42-35 in Ocean City on Jan. 8. Last season, they shared the CAL National title, with each team dealing the other its only conference loss.

The rivalry is intense, and the Middle Township crowd was rowdy Tuesday night. A group of male students painted "Go Middle" on their chests and heckled Ocean City players throughout the game.

"It was really energetic," Piergross said. "You could just feel it. … It's just exciting to play in."

Duggan, one of South Jersey's top players, has committed to Rider University. The 6-foot-2 center faced a box-and-one defense for most of the game Tuesday, but Ocean City's perimeter shooters made Middle pay.

Piergross scored the game's first five points and repeatedly came through with clutch outside shots. Point guard Katie Johnson also contributed, finishing with 11 points.

Ocean City coach Paul Baruffi said confidence has been the only issue for Piergross this season, and she overcame that against Middle.

"I felt like tonight I just came out and forgot about everything and just shot it because we needed to win this game," Piergross said.

Duggan compared Piergross to former Red Raider Reilly Larkin, who was a second-team Press All-Star last season as a senior.

"(Larkin) could shoot it from pretty much everywhere," Duggan said. "And when Nicole is on and she's confident, she shoots exactly like Reilly, and you really need that."

A Piergross jumper put Ocean City up 35-16 about one minute into the fourth quarter, and the Red Raiders appeared to be running away with the win.

But Middle Township's Lauryn Fields scored 18 of her game-high 20 points in the final five minutes of the fourth to make it close.

Ocean City made 15-of-20 from the free-throw line in the final five minutes, though, and the lead never dipped below eight.

"We were trying to claw back, but to their credit they took care of the ball," Middle coach John Leahy said. "And we tried to extend the game as much as we could, but they took care of the ball and made their foul shots."

Both coaches said they would welcome another matchup in the Cape-Atlantic League tournament later this month.

"The thing I like about playing Middle and these games is … it's a playoff atmosphere," Baruffi said. "I think it helps us. It's going to help them. I think it's why we've both been successful in the past few years - battling each other."

If Ocean City keeps getting contributions from Piergross and the rest of Duggan's supporting cast, the Red Raiders could make a deep run in the South Jersey Group III playoffs.

"We have to be able to go to other people, so people can't do what they tried to do to Julia tonight," Baruffi said. "If we can do that, then we can be successful."

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Ocean City 11 11 11 19-52

Middle Township 5 7 4 28-44

OC-Johnson 2 6-9 11, Piergross 5 0-0 12, Mateer 0 8-8 8, Landi 0 5-6 5, Duggan 4 6-10 14, Price 1 0-0 2. Totals 12 25-33 52.

MT-Schwartz 4 0-0 11, Fields 7 4-5 20, Legler 3 3-6 9, McKaig 1 0-0 2, Salvo 1 0-0 2. Totals 16 7-11 44.

3-pointers-Piergross (2), Johnson OC; Schwartz (3), Fields (2) MT.

Records-O.C. 16-2, Middle 13-6.