OCEAN CITY — The free-throw line was unkind to the Ocean City High School girls basketball team Monday.
The Red Raiders combined to make just 8-of-19 attempts.
Senior point guard Katie Johnson, however, was a perfect 4-for-4. Her clutch shots in the final seconds propelled Ocean City to a championship.
Top-seeded Ocean City defeated No. 6 Timber Creek 34-26 to win the South Jersey Group III title for the fourth time in six seasons. The Red Raiders (24-4), ranked No. 10 in The Press Elite 11, will play Central Jersey champion Freehold Borough in a state Group III semifinal Wednesday at 8 p.m. at Williamstown High School.
“It feels so surreal,” Johnson said of winning another sectional crown. “To do it twice in my career here is even better.”
Despite her teammates’ foul-line woes, Johnson stepped to the line with 16.8 seconds left in the game with confidence. The Red Raiders held a three-point lead for most of the quarter.
A few dribbles and one shot later, Ocean City’s lead increased to four. Then five. A sea of fans sporting red and white cheered from the stands.
Timber Creek (13-14) brought the ball up the court in a blaze. Johnson again came up with a key play. She intercepted a pass and was fouled again with 10 seconds to go and Ocean City in the double bonus. She made both ensuing free throws.
“(Coach Paul Baruffi) told me, ‘You have the mechanics. You’re going to go to the line and you’re not going to miss.’ That’s what happened,” Johnson said.
Ocean City led for nearly the entire game. Timber Creek briefly went ahead in the third quarter, but that lasted less than a minute.
Still, the Red Raiders’ advantage was never comfortable. They never led by more than five until the final seconds. Both teams played incredible defense.
Baruffi applauded the Chargers’ game plan. Timber Creek’s zone defense made it tough for the Red Raiders to penetrate the lane and get the ball to 6-foot-2 senior Julia Duggan, who finished with 11 points and nine rebounds.
The Red Raiders played imposing defense as well. They shut down Timber Creek shooting guard Amanda Riiff, a potent outside shooter who had two points.
However, Chargers standout sophomore Brittany Martin made plays for herself, driving through the lane or dribbling around defenders. She scored a game-high 13 points.
“It was a real battle. Timber Creek played very hard,” Baruffi said. “We hurt ourselves with the foul shots, but at the end when we needed it, one of our seniors stepped up.”
Each of the six players who played for Ocean City made critical contributions.
Senior forward Natalie Landi was a force on the boards with 13 rebounds. Senior forward Mary Kate Mateer played stellar defense and came up with a few clutch offensive rebounds. Freshman guard Nicole Piergross hit two 3-pointers in the second quarter to keep Ocean City ahead. Junior guard Taylor Price scored on a jumper from the elbow to give the Red Raiders a two-possession lead at halftime.
“We all played a key role that helped lead us to our win,” Duggan said.
Ocean City ran nearly three minutes off the clock in the fourth quarter on two offensive possessions. The Red Raiders passed the ball around near halfcourt and occasionally to either wing.
Baruffi said the plan wasn’t to stall, rather to try and open up the inside to get the ball to Duggan. When that didn’t work, he trusted the Red Raiders’ defense to keep the team on top.
Landi hit a free throw with 5.4 seconds left, and the fans in the packed stands leapt to their feet.
Ocean City is one win away from appearing in the program’s third state final. The last came in 2008. The Red Raiders have never won a state championship.
For Ocean City’s five seniors (the group also includes reserve Tess Solazzo), their last game in the school’s gymnasium will be one to remember.
“To win this in my last game on this court means a lot to me,” Duggan said. “This has been my home for four years.”
Contact Brittany Grugan:
Timber Creek 8 7 7 4—26
Ocean City 9 10 6 9—34
TC—Martin 4 4-4 13, Riiff 0 2-2 2, Furbert 2 0-0 4, Pierce 1 0-0 2, Foxworth 1 0-0 2, Brittingham 1 1-2 3. Totals 9 7-8 26.
OC—Johnson 0 4-4 4, Piergross 3 0-0 8, Mateer 0 0-5 0, Landi 3 1-2 7, Duggan 4 3-9 11, Price 2 0-0 4. Totals 12 9-20 34.
3-pointers—Martin TC; Piergross (2) OC.
Records—Timber Creek 13-14; O.C. 24-4.