OCEAN CITY - Lauren Legler intercepted a pass under the basket in overtime Saturday.
The Middle Township High School junior stole the ball from Willingboro and tossed it to a waiting Lauryn Fields, who drove it to the opposite basket for a layup with 3 minutes, 27 seconds left. The 10th lead change of the game put the Panthers up by two points.
The Panthers held on for the win. Middle Township defeated Willingboro, No. 10 in The Press Elite 11, 53-49 in an Ocean City PBA Tipoff Weekend game at Ocean City High School.
The Chimeras (1-1) are a senior-laden team stacked with talent. Middle Township (2-0) has just one senior, Olivia Schwartz, who scored 12 points.
"That's a huge win for us against a really good team," Panthers coach John Leahy said. "They're very, very experienced - probably the best in (South Jersey) Group II."
Middle is the defending South Jersey Group II champion. Willingboro, a perennial power, got knocked out of the postseason early by Delran, which the Panthers defeated in the sectional final.
The Chimeras return nearly every key player. They struggled with multiple fouls and turnovers, but held the lead for most of the first half.
Middle Township planned to be a much more uptempo, offense-driven team this season. Fields, a point guard, scored a game-high 22 points.
But keeping up with Willingboro's athleticism and defensive prowess forced the Panthers into some offensive mistakes.
In response, the Panthers went back to what's been the program's staple in recent history - gritty defense.
"It was nerve-wracking," said Legler, who had 14 points and eight rebounds. "But we have to learn how to control the tempo."
Legler made two steals in overtime. She was fouled on the second one with 37.8 seconds left and Middle in the double bonus. She hit both free throws to put Middle up by five to seal the victory.
Michaya Owens scored the game's final point for Willingboro and brought the Chimeras within four, but they ran out of time. The senior scored 12 points and has more than 1,500 in her career.
Free throws were a key to Middle's victory thanks to 21 Willingboro fouls. The Panthers were 21-for-27 from the foul line. Fields was 13-for-16, including the tying point to force overtime with 28.1 seconds left in regulation.
"She is certainly the girl we want to have with the ball in her hands at the end, along with (Legler)," Leahy said. "The two of them made some important fouls shots down the stretch.
"But even when we made mistakes on the offensive end, we dug in and got stops, and really started to scrap. We got deflections and got some rebounds when we really needed them."
Both Middle and Willingboro are contenders in Group II. Each have plenty of time to fix their mistakes before they could potentially meet again in the playoffs.
If that happens, the Panthers will play with confidence thanks to this early season win.
"This was a big game for us to play," Schwartz said. "We were really nervous. (Now), we're really excited."
Contact Brittany Grugan:
Willingboro 14 14 11 7 3-49
Middle Township 9 15 14 8 7-53
W-Bennett 8 2-2 18, Mosley 2 0-0 6, Owens 4 3-4 12, Stepney 3 0-0 7, Francis 2 0-1 4. Totals-20 5-7 49.
MT-Fields 4 13-16 22, Schwartz 4 2-3 12, Legler 4 6-8 15; McHaig 2 0-1 4, Riggitano 0 0-0 0. Totals-16 21-28 53.
3-pointers-Mosley (2), Owens, Stepney W; Fields, Schwartz (2), Legler MT.
Records-Willingboro 1-1; Middle 2-0.