CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE - Olivia Schwartz came out of Friday's game with less than one minute left to play.
The Middle Township High School senior headed to the beach to loud applause and cheers. She hugged her teammates and coaches before taking a seat on the bench in the Panthers' gym for the final time.
Schwartz will play at least one more basketball game in a Middle Township uniform, however. The Panthers' season isn't over yet.
Middle will play for its second straight South Jersey Group II championship next week after beating Cinnaminson 45-31 in a semifinal. The second-seeded Panthers (19-9) will travel to top-seeded Willingboro for the sectional final Tuesday. The game time was not set as of Friday.
"It feels amazing to get there two years in a row," Schwartz said. "The nerves were obviously there at first, but this is so exciting."
Schwartz, a 5-foot-10 forward, finished with 11 points, nine of which came in the second half. Two of her buckets gave momentum to the Panthers in a game in which neither team could pull away until late in the third quarter.
A quick layup on an inbounds pass from junior guard Lauryn Fields put Middle up by five with 2 minutes, 45 seconds left in the third - its biggest lead since the middle of the first quarter. With 6:17 left in the game, Schwartz drilled a long 3-point shot, much to the crowd's delight. The Panthers went up by eight points on the basket and Cinnaminson (21-6) never threatened after that.
"I didn't get a lot of shots off (in the game), and it was way outside," Schwartz said. "It definitely gave us some excitement."
Fields, who led all scorers with 18 points, hit 3-of-4 shots from behind the 3-point line in the first quarter. The Pirates didn't give her any more open looks from outside, so Fields started driving to the basket.
Two possessions after Schwartz's big 3-pointer, Fields scored on an impressive spin move in the lane that even made Middle coach John Leahy leap in the air.
Middle finally took control after the game saw the lead changed seven times in the second and third quarters. The Panthers were unsatisfied with their play in the first half and made all the necessary adjustments.
"It all comes back to effort," Fields said. "We've been talking about giving 32 minutes of effort."
Intelligent play changed the game. Middle reduced its turnovers from eight in the first half to one in the second.
Meanwhile, Cinnaminson committed 19 turnovers in the game. A majority of them were forced by the Panthers' aggressive defenders intercepting passes or simply pulling the ball from players' hands.
Olivia Salvo did a stellar job in the second half of hounding Cinnaminson's Naja Treadwell, who led the Pirates with 11 points.
By the two minute mark, Middle slowed down its offense and prolonged possessions.
"When we play as hard as we can, things take care of themselves," Leahy said.
Middle faces an arduous task in playing Willingboro. The Chimeras (23-4) are a perennial state Group II power and have won 18 of their last 19 games.
Middle is one of the four teams to have beaten Willingboro. The Panthers won in overtime in a Ocean City PBA Tipoff Weekend game in December.
"They're very good. We know how they play," Schwartz said. "We can definitely do this."
Contact Brittany Grugan:
Cinnaminson 10 8 9 4-31
Middle Township 12 5 13 15-45
C-Treadwell 6 1-3 13, Tarpe 1 0-0 3, Campbell 4 1-2 13, Branich 1 0-0 2, Runyen 0 0-0 0. Totals-12 2-5 31.
MT-McKaig 0 2-4 2, Legler 2 4-6 9, Fields 5 5-6 18, Schwartz 4 2-2 11, Salvo 2 1-3 5. Totals-13 14-21 45.
3-pointers-Tarpe, Campbell (4) C; Fields (3), Schwartz MT.
Records-Cinnaminson 21-6; Middle Township 19-9.