EGG HARBOR CITY — Just before the start of Monday’s South Jersey Group II girls basketball championship game, Cedar Creek High School senior guard Mikila Stefanski made a prediction to coach Fran Raph.
“I told her we were going to win,” Stefanski said with laugh. “And she said, ‘OK, then go out there and get it done.’ ”
Stefanski and the rest of third-seeded Pirates got it done against fourth-seeded Middle Township in a gymnasium packed to capacity.
Stefanski scored a game-high 22 points and a number of teammates also contributed big plays as Cedar Creek earned its second sectional title in three seasons with a 56-50 victory in one of the season’s most exciting games.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Pirates screamed and hugged one another while their large and loud fan base known as the “Creek Crazies” tumbled out of the stands to join in the celebration.
Middle coach John Leahy hugged Raph before delivering an emotional address to his team that had players crying as they left the visitors’ locker room. The Panthers’ fans who made the trip from Middle Township stuck around and gave the team a standing ovation when it returned to the court. Middle, ranked No. 7 in The Press Elite 11, finished its season at 24-6.
“My kids played their hearts out,” Leahy said. “I couldn’t ask anymore from them than what they gave for each other and the program tonight and the entire season. But I also want to give Cedar Creek a lot of credit. They made plays when they needed to make them and I wish them all the best the rest of the way.”
Cedar Creek (24-4), No. 11 in the Elite 11, advanced to the state semifinals on Wednesday at Williamstown High School, where the Pirates will face the Central Jersey champion,either Manasquan/Holmdel.
The Pirates seek their second state championship after winning the Group I title in 2012. Some wondered if such a run was possible this season, considering standout center Kristine Miller graduated last year and is now at Fairfield University.
“I thought we could do it,” Raph said. “We lost Kristine, but we had our entire core back. It was just a matter of quickly everyone could come together.”
The Pirates delivered in the clutch against Middle.
Morgan Stefanski gave the Pirates the lead for good with 1 minute, 35 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter when she nailed a jumper from the corner to break a 45-45 tie.
The Pirates then made their foul shots down the stretch, hitting 9 of 10 free throws to keep Middle at bay.
“We practice foul shooting a lot,” Mikila Stefanski said. “And that paid off for us tonight.”
Cedar Creek prevailed in a thrilling, tense contest that was never decided until the last minute. When one team looked ready to establish control, the other would bounce back with their own rally.
Every loose ball produced a scramble, every rebound was contested, every shot was launched against tight defense. The game was competitive — even the cheerleaders brought the fans to their feet by trading back handsprings during timeouts.
Pirates guard Jahniece Jaffe supported Mikela Stefanski with 12 points, including nine in the pivotal fourth quarter. Center Casey Thomas added 11 points. Mercina Stefanski hit a pair of 3-pointers.
Olivia Salvo delivered an outstanding performance for Middle, scoring a team-high 16 points while shooting 8-for-11 from the field. She made back-to-back baskets during a 10-0 Panthers’ surge in the third quarter that gave them their biggest lead at 35-28.
Middle guard Lauryn Fields delivered a memorable performance in her final game for the Panthers.
She scored 11 points, but all of her baskets produced roars from the crowd. Her 3-pointer from halfcourt at the first-half buzzer forced a 22-22 tie. Three more second-half field goals came during end-to-end drives that featured her banking in shots as she tumbled over the baseline and slid against the wall.
“This is so tough to lose because we gave everything we had out there,” Field said. “I couldn’t ask for better teammates or a better coach. We left it all on the court.”
Contact David Weinberg:
Middle Township 8 14 13 15—50
Cedar Creek 11 11 9 25—56
M—Fields 5 0-2 11, Legler 2 1-2 6, E. Ruskey 2 0-0 4, Salvo 8 0-0 16, McKaig 0 1-4 1, Peterson 1 0-0 3, B. Ruskey 3 3-5 9. Totals 21 5-13 50.
CC—Mi. Stefanski 7 5-6 22, Me. Stefanski 2 0-0 6, Mo. Stefanski 1 0-0 2, Jaffe 3 4-4 12, Thomas 5 1-2 11, Blackwell 1 1-3 3. Totals 19 11-16 56.
3-pointers: Fields, Peterson, Legler M; Mi. Stefanski (3), Me. Stefanski (2), Jaffe (2) CC.
RECORDS: Middle Township 24-6; Cedar Creek 24-4.