GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Lauryn Fields knew the Middle Township High School girls basketball team was in trouble in the third quarter Saturday afternoon.
“We needed something to start us off — a layup or a steal,” she said.
Fields exceeded her own expectations. She provided the Panthers with two 3-pointers, a pair of acrobatic floaters in the lane and the momentum to win a championship.
The Middle senior point guard scored 14 of her 20 points in the second half to propel the Panthers to a thrilling 42-39 come-from-behind win over Wildwood Catholic in the Cape-Atlantic League title game.
Middle (21-5) trailed 28-16 with three minutes left in the third quarter. The championship is Middle’s fourth CAL title but its first since 1996.
“I can’t believe this,” Fields said. “I’m happy. This means so much to us. We have worked hard practice after practice after practice. This is what it’s about.”
The Panthers outscored Wildwood Catholic 15-1 in the final 2 minutes, 23 seconds of the third quarter to take a two-point lead. Fields scored 10 of those points.
“Once Lauryn makes one shot, you can tell she’s going to start to get going,” Middle coach John Leahy said. “She’s a special kid with special talent.”
Fields’ teammates picked up her spark in the fourth quarter. Olivia Salvo scored her only basket of the game to give Middle a 33-32 lead with 6:10 left in the contest. The Panthers would never trail again.
Lauren Legler helped preserve Middle's lead with a 3-pointer and baseline jumper in the fourth quarter. Fields sank two free throws with six seconds left to put Middle up three and force the Crusaders to take a rushed 3-pointer that missed at the buzzer.
Fields’ second-half effort overcame a standout performance by Wildwood Catholic’s Danielle Sanderlin (12 points, 12 rebounds) and Kennedy Johnson (18 points, 10 rebounds).
In the first half, fourth-seeded Wildwood Catholic (20-6) seemed headed for a comfortable win over second-seeded Middle Township (21-5).
Sanderlin dominated inside in the first quarter. The 6-foot-2 Johnson showed her talent by sinking several perimeter shots in the first two quarters.
But there were some subtle signs of trouble for the Crusaders — mostly foul trouble. Johnson finished the first half with three fouls. The foul trouble caused Wildwood Catholic to shift from man-to-man to a zone in the second half. Johnson played the fourth quarter with four fouls after being assesses a technical foul with 24.7 seconds left in the third.
Still, the Crusaders controlled the game until late in the third quarter.
It didn't appear to be anything at the time when Fields sank a 3-pointer with 2:55 left in the quarter to cut the lead to nine. But it was the start of Middle's dramatic comeback.
Fields made another 3-pointer with 2:23 left to cut the lead to seven. Fields then penetrated and sank a pair of floaters in the lane. Middle took a 31-29 lead when Fields (four assists and three steals) found Bridget Ruskey open under the basket for a layup with 2.8 seconds left in the third.
Middle led by as many as six in the fourth quarter. Wildwood Catholic then made its own comeback.
Sanderlin sank two free throws with 1:14 left to cut the Middle lead to 40-39. But the Crusaders could get no closer.
The Middle defense concentrated on keeping the ball out of Johnson’s hands. Wildwood Catholic called timeout with 16.4 seconds left and down a point. Crusaders freshman point guard Naiy Sabb drove and missed with eight seconds left.
After Fields sank two foul shots with six seconds left, Sabb missed a long-range 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“Lauryn stepped up at a critical point in the game,” Crusaders coach Steve DiPatri said. “You could feel the momentum switch. We made some defensive adjustments and fought back, but we were one good shot away from winning the game.”
The Middle girls mobbed each other in celebration after the final buzzer. The Panthers are a senior-dominated team. This was their last chance for a league title.
“This means everything,” Legler said. “I cried out there.”
Contact Michael McGarry:
Wildwood Catholic 14 8 7 10 — 39
Middle Township 5 9 17 11 — 42
WC – Sabb 1 2-4 4, McCallion 1 2-2 4, Rulon 0 1-2 1, Sanderlin 4 4-4 12, Johnson 7 3-4 18. Totals 13 12-16 39.
MT — E. Ruskey 1 0-0 2, Fields 6 6-8 20, Salvo 1 2-2 4, McKaig 0 0-0 0, Legler 2 1-4 6, B. Ruskey 2 0-2 4, Peterson 2 1-1 6. Totals 14 10-17 42.
3-pointers — WC. Johnson; MT. Fields (2), Legler, Peterson.
Records — Wildwood Catholic 20-6; Middle Township 21-5