CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE - Darrell Shelton scored 23 points and sank four 3-point shots Tuesday night.
None of the senior guard's baskets were bigger than the first shots he made.
St. Augustine Prep started quickly and had Middle reeling in the first quarter.
But Shelton scored seven points in the first quarter to stabilize the game and propel Middle to greater heights.
The Panthers dominated the final three quarters and beat St. Augustine 67-47 in a Cape-Atlantic League National Division game.
"He sets the tone for us with his toughness," Middle coach Tom Feraco said. "We're not the most talented team. We're not the most athletic team. But there's a toughness about our kids."
The 5-foot-10 Shelton exemplified that toughness in the first quarter. Fans packed Middle's gym. St. Augustine vs. Middle Township is one of the region's top rivalries. Feraco and St. Augustine coach Paul Rodio have combined to win seven state titles and more than 1,400 games. Middle is No. 5 in The Press Elite 11, while the Hermits (2-1) are No. 6.
Middle won two of three games over St. Augustine last season and the Hermits seemed prime to avenge those defeats Tuesday.
St. Augustine jumped to a 5-0 lead. Middle seemed shaky and struggled to find open shots.
"They came at us fast," Feraco said.
Shelton then sank a 3-pointer with 5 minutes, 36 seconds left in the first quarter for Middle's first points.
Still, St. Augustine led 12-3 midway through the first quarter.
Shelton then sank two foul shots to start a 9-0 run that tied the game. Shelton finished the run with another jumper that tied the score with 1:12 left in the quarter.
"I saw we were having trouble at the start, so I tried to get some things going," Shelton said. "My teammates trust me to take those shots."
Middle controlled the game from the second quarter on. The Panthers drew roars from their fans with a 15-0 run that turned a five-point lead with 3:22 left in the third quarter into a 53-33 advantage with 1:29 left.
Middle senior forward Lamarr Greer (14 points, seven rebounds) began the surge with a 3-pointer. Shelton scored eight points during the stretch, including a 3-pointer to finish the run.
"They made shots," St. Augustine coach Paul Rodio said. "I don't know if we didn't play defense for those minutes or they didn't miss. You have to give them credit. I don't care if there is no defense on the floor, you still have to make shots and they made shots."
Middle is a senior-dominated team and the Panthers showed their experience Tuesday. In addition to Shelton, different seniors took turns leading the Panthers. Point guard Tom Catanoso (11 points) sank three 3-pointers in the first half. Swingman Tom Feraco, the coach's son, scored six of his 13 points in the fourth quarter and finished the game with six assists and four steals.
"It's not then end of the world for us," Rodio said of the loss. "It's more of a pride thing. We thought we had enough to come in here (and win). But they shot the ball well."
Meanwhile, for the Panthers it was as big an early-season win as a team can have.
The teams will meet again at St. Augustine on Jan. 25.
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