WILDWOOD - A strong start Tuesday enabled the Wildwood High School girls basketball team to end a lengthy playoff drought.
The Warriors stormed to a 13-point lead in the first quarter, then held off a series of rallies from Riverside of Burlington County to net a 56-43 victory in the first round of the South Jersey Group I playoffs.
The win was Wildwood's first in the playoffs since 2008, when the Warriors earned their seventh South Jersey title.
None of the current players on Wildwood's team, including seniors Jess Freeman and Mackenzie Huber, had ever won a playoff game in any sport at Wildwood.
"This was a huge deal for me and the other players," said Freeman, who also played soccer for four years and softball as a freshman. "To finally win a playoff game and have the opportunity to advance even further means a lot. I didn't want to leave Wildwood without winning at least one."
The Warriors (18-5) don't have much time celebrate, however. Monday's snowstorm forced officials to move their playoff game to Tuesday. As a result, the fifth-seeded Warriors have to return to the court today, when they play at fourth-seeded Audubon in the quarterfinals.
Wildwood coach Dave Troiano gave his team some homework on Tuesday. When Freeman and the rest of the team left the locker room after the game, they were all clutching scouting reports on Audubon, which beat 13th-seeded Glassboro on Tuesday.
"It's tough having to play back-to-back games," Troiano said. "But the other teams are all in the same boat."
The Warriors may not have gotten the chance to extend their season if not for their impressive performance in the first quarter.
Freeman, who has scored more than 1,600 career points, nailed three 3-pointers in the first five minutes to help Wildwood grab a 17-4 lead. She scored 10 of her game-high 21 points in the first quarter, which ended with the Warriors ahead 20-10 and seemingly headed to an easy victory.
But their momentum disappeared. Damaje Anderson's spinning layup highlighted a second-quarter rally by Riverside (12-12) that cut the Warriors' lead to five points at 26-21. Wildwood led 28-21 at halftime and received a stern talking-to from Troiano.
"We jumped out on them and then we relaxed," Troiano said. "I told them I didn't care if (Riverside) was the 12th seed. This is the playoffs, and they were not going to go away. I also kept reminding them that they didn't want to go out without winning at least one playoff game."
The Rams closed the gap to three points at 28-25 with five minutes, 40 seconds left in the third quarter on Carly Newman's jumper. Freeman nailed another 3-pointer, freshman Mackenzie McCracken and junior Leishly Reyes converted offensive rebounds, and Huber hit a jumper during an 8-2 Wildwood run that built the lead to 37-27.
Riverside made one last comeback, closing to five points at 39-34 with six minutes left in regulation, but a 10-2 surge by the Warriors gave them some breathing room.
Freeman led the Warriors with 21 points and 12 rebounds. Reyes added 12 points and Jillian Freeman, Jess' sophomore sister, scored 10.
Newman topped Riverside with 14 points.
"We told the players on the bus ride here that if we stayed close in the first quarter that we would have a chance," Rams coach Scott Atkinson said. "But No. 21 (Jess Freeman) got going early and we couldn't get over the hump after that."
Contact David Weinberg:
Riverside 10 11 9 13 - 43
Wildwood 20 8 9 19 - 56
R - Vansciver 2 2-2 6, Anderson 3 2-2 8, Miccuci 3 1-2 8, Newman 6 2-2 14, Davis 1 0-0 3, Starke 2 0-0 4. Totals 17 7-8 43.
W - Je. Freeman 7 3-4 21, Huber 1 0-0 2, Reyes 5 2-2 12, Ji. Freeman 4 2-4 10, McCracken 4 1-2 9, Farlow 1 0-0 2. Totals 22 8-12 56.
3-pointers-Miccuci, Davis R; Je. Freeman (4) W.
Records- Riverside 12-12; Wildwood 18-5.