middle township girls basketball

Middle's 23 Kristina Startare shoots during the first half. Monday March 5 2012 Middle Twp girls win Group II Basketball Final against Delran at home. (The Press of Atlantic City / Ben Fogletto)

Ben Fogletto

Middle Township High School girls basketball coach John Leahy received several text messages, emails, phone calls and voicemails after the Panthers won the South Jersey Group II title Monday night.

The Panthers beat Delran 49-39 for their first sectional title in 17 years.

Leahy hopes to receive even more congratulatory messages in the coming days as Middle, the No. 11 team in The Press Elite 11, faces Central Jersey Group II champion Point Pleasant Boro (22-8), at 5 p.m. today in the state group semifinals at Deptford Township High School.

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"I can't tell how much we appreciate everyone's support," Leahy said in a phone interview Tuesday night.

Middle used all its firepower in the sectional final, and Leahy says it will need to do even more to knock off the three-time defending Central Jersey champions.

Point Pleasant attacks its opponents on the offensive end from behind the 3-point line. PPB connected 12 times from behind the arc on its way to an 81-50 win over Summit for the the Central Jersey title, including four from an an unlikely player, Kerry Malleck, who plays the post. Leading scorer Kelly Hughes added 21 points in the win and Lauren Hughes had 14 with four 3-pointers. Kelly Hughes hit six 3-pointers and scored 38 points in a 55-49 victory over Ocean City in a Battle by the Bay game at Atlantic City High School on Feb. 4.

On defense, PPB runs a full court press 1-3-1, which could disrupt Middle's offense. Middle likes to play a half-court game and use their passing game to break down defenses.

"We're going to play the way we usually do - be physical, communicate, draw charges when we have to," Leahy said. "The kids knows if we keep the game close going into the fourth quarter, we can give ourselves a chance to win."

"One of the things we talked about is taking care of the ball," he added. "We certainly have to move the ball around against a zone and penetrate gaps, but at the same time we feel we have the kids that can make shots. The girls do a great job of making the extra pass and finding the open shooter. So it comes down to getting your feet set and making open shots."

Leahy said 16-year old junior forward Olivia Schwartz could help generate offense for Middle, which is mostly known for its stingy man-to-man defense. The Cape May Court House resident posted a game-high 16 points in the title game. She had 12 in Middle's opening-round victory over Bridgeton.

"When she's making shots it spreads the floor out and opens lanes for other kids. I think when she's shooting the ball well, we're a pretty tough team to beat," Leahy said.

"(Monday night) I was really on and once I hit that first shot, the whole game comes to me," Schwartz added. "I have more confidence now."

Point guard Lauryn Fields contributed 14 points Monday and senior captain Sarah Roberts scored seven of her nine points in the fourth quarter to help the Panthers pull away.

Leahy said Roberts and seniors Anna Ay and Kristina Startare also will play a big role. The threesome has been to three sectional finals in the past four seasons and finally will play in a state semifinal today.

"We always say to each other once you start to win games, you have to become greedy," Roberts, a 17-year old Cape May Court House resident, said. "That's what we want to do (today). We don't want to settle for just South Jersey."

If Middle wins, it will advance to the state final for the first time since 1995, when it won the Group III championship. The Panthers were Group II champions in 1994 when current assistant coach Brandee Day was a senior.

"It would be tremendous (to win it all)," Leahy said. "We're not looking ahead, but it's kind of hard not to a little bit and say, 'What if.' "

Contact Kelly Ashe:

609-272-7210

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