The Middle Township and Cedar Creek high school girls basketball teams will meet for the South Jersey Group II title today.
It will be a contest between friends.
Middle (24-5) and Cedar Creek (23-4) know each other well. Middle guard Lauryn Fields is good friends with Cedar Creek guard Jahniece Jaffe. Lauren Legler of Middle Township is buddies with Morgan Stefanski of Cedar Creek.
"There's a bittersweet excitement about the game because they know each so other so well," Cedar Creek coach Fran Raph said. "They're really good friends. It's an interesting dynamic."
The game will tip off at 6 p.m. at Cedar Creek in Egg Harbor City.
Middle Township is ranked fifth in The Press Elite 11, up two spots since last week's ranking. Cedar Creek, which was unranked a week ago, is No. 11.
"This is like Christmas to the players," Raph said. "They work so hard all year long. It's a long season. They are so thankful to get to where we are. They're bouncing off the walls with excitement."
These teams played each other Jan. 11 with Cedar Creek winning 68-39. But Legler missed that game with a fractured ankle and Fields left the game in the second quarter with an injured foot. Fields averages nearly 19 points and has scored more than 1,600 career points. She sparks Middle's offense with her ability to penetrate defenses and create shots for herself and teammates.
Both teams have plenty of big-game experience. Middle won the Cape-Atlantic League title this month. The Panthers won the 2012 South Jersey Group II title and reached the final last season, losing to Willingboro. Several Pirates played key roles on the Cedar Creek team that won the state Group I title in 2012.
"I don't think the game is going to be too big for anybody because both teams have been there before," Middle coach John Leahy said.
Middle has won 14 straight games.
"For about the last month, we have been playing with such a sense of belief in each other," Leahy said. "We believe no matter what the scenario is we're going to figure out a way to win. We've come from behind. We've gotten off to early leads. We've won games on the last possession. I feel this group is ready for whatever is in front of them."
Cedar Creek will try to pressure the Panthers into turnovers and then convert those mistakes into points.
"It's going to be a game of spurts," Raph said. "They're going to go on a run. We're going to go on a run. It's a matter of containing the spurts and not letting them get too crazy."
Leahy said the Panthers must rebound well. Cedar Creek has a size advantage with 6-foot Casey Thomas and 6-2 Fatimah Blackwell. The two combined for 28 points in a 64-39 semifinal win over Lower Cape May.
The Cedar Creek gym should be packed tonight. Every good team plays well at home.But the home court is even more meaningful to the Pirates, who seem to shoot the ball better at home than on the road.
"It's going to be a great atmosphere," Leahy said. "Hopefully, they'll be some Middle orange and back there. I'm expecting a great game, and more than likely it's going to come down to the last couple of possessions."
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