OCEAN CITY - The Middle Township High School girls basketball team relied on senior guard Lauryn Fields' poise under pressure to earn its biggest victory of the season Monday.
Fields scored all eight of the Panthers' fourth-quarter points, including a go-ahead basket in the final two minutes, to lead her team to a 36-32 win over Ocean City that enabled Middle to clinch the Cape-Atlantic League National Division championship.
Middle (15-5, 10-0 National) owns a two-game lead over defending-champion Ocean City in the division with two games to play but have beaten the Red Raiders twice this season.
"The conference always goes through Ocean City, and anytime you can leave this gym with a win you've got to feel good about it," Middle coach John Leahy said. "Our kids deserve a lot of credit for what they've been through this season."
The Panthers have been without senior forward Lauren Legler the entire season. Legler, whom Leahy said he considered their second-best player behind Fields, missed the first 19 games due to a broken ankle. She was cleared to practice last week but spent Monday's game on the bench in street clothes with her right arm in a sling and her left hand bandaged.
Leahy said that Legler was among three Middle players involved in a one-car accident Sunday night. They were returning from watching the Wildwood Catholic boys team play in the Shoot Down Cancer tournament at St. Augustine Prep - Legler's brother Ryan is a freshman at Wildwood Catholic - when their car slid off an icy road and hit a telephone pole. Leahy said no one was seriously hurt.
Fields was at her best down the stretch against Ocean City, scoring six of her team-high 18 points in the final 2 minutes in rallying the Panthers.
Fields slashed to the basket to tie the game at 32-32, then scored the game-winning points with a coast-to-coast layup after a steal with 1 minute, 48 seconds left in regulation. After an Ocean City turnover with 47.2 seconds remaining, she converted both ends of a one-and-one to clinch the win with 28.3 seconds to go.
"I was having trouble scoring at times, but my teammates did a great job of picking me up and feeding me the ball at the end," Fields said. "I always want the ball in my hands in the final seconds so I can help our team win."
When Fields struggled in the first and third quarters - she scored 10 points in the second quarter and eight in the fourth - senior center Holly McKaig picked up the offensive slack.
McKaig scored four of her 12 points in the opening period, then finished off some fast breaks against Ocean City's press in the third quarter by scoring eight points.
"It's just so exciting to win the division," McKaig said. "It's an incredible feeling. I love these girls. Most of us have been playing together for four years. When Lauren got hurt, it was a terrible thing, but we all bonded together and won this for her."
As in their first meeting this season - a 33-31 Middle win on Jan. 14 - the Panthers prevailed in an exciting, back-and-forth contest.
Ocean City, which was undefeated at home this season, went ahead 13-7 early in the second quarter on freshman guard Grace Sacco's three-point play, but Middle answered with an 11-0 run en route to a 18-15 halftime lead.
McKaig quick points in the third quarter to put Middle ahead 24-19, but the Red Raiders (13-4) kept charging. Senior forward Taylor Price swished a 3-pointer and sophomore guard Olivia Briggs made a pair of free throws to tie the game at 30-30 with 3:45 left. Sacco gave Ocean City its last lead at 32-30 with two foul shots with 2:45 remaining.
"How can I complain with the effort we gave tonight?" Ocean City coach Paul Baruffi said. "They left everything on the court, and I've been so proud of the way they've played this season. We're basically a brand new team, but we've made a lot of progress. It's deep in the season now and we have to grow up, but I think we have done that."
Contact David Weinberg:
Middle Township 6 12 10 8-36
Ocean City 10 5 8 9-32
MT- Fields 6 5-9 18, McKaig 6 0-2 12, Salvo 2 0-0 4, Ruskey 1 0-1 2. Totals-15 5-12 36.
OC- Price 3 2-2 9, Briggs 1 6-7 8, Sacco 2 5-5 9, Paone 3 0-0 6. Totals-9 13-14 32.
3-pointers-Fields MT; Price OC.
Records-Ocean City 12-4; Middle 12-6 .