CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE - Not until there were about 13 seconds left did Middle Township High School girls basketball coach John Leahy feel safe.
He didn't want his team to take any lead for granted against a formidable Delran team Monday night. Then, the Panthers' Sarah Roberts stepped to the foul line with 13.7 seconds left in the game. The deafening crowd went silent.
The Middle fans erupted with cheers as Roberts' free throw swished through the basket, followed by the second.
With a double-digit lead and the seconds winding down, Leahy couldn't help but smile.
Middle stunned Delran 49-39 to win its first South Jersey Group II championship since 1995. The Panthers will play Central Jersey champion Point Pleasant Boro in a state Group II semifinal at 5 p.m. Wednesday at Deptford High School.
Middle's fans jumped and cheered throughout the final minute. The student section roared.
"This was all about character and toughness and our kids just refusing to be denied," Leahy said. "What a night for our community."
The Panthers (24-5) did what many in the region's basketball community thought improbable.
Despite being the No. 2 seed and hosting a South Jersey final, Middle, ranked No. 11 in The Press Elite 11, was the underdog. Fifth-seeded Delran (22-6) is ranked No. 8 in the Elite 11 and beat perennial power Willingboro to reach the final.
"We knew everyone was doubting us and we didn't care. We believed in ourselves. We knew it was our time," senior Kristina Startare said.
Roberts scored seven points in the fourth quarter and was 5-for-6 from the foul line. She finished with nine points and five assists.
Defensively, Roberts was even better. She made five steals and tenaciously guarded Delran's leading scorer, senior Taylor Umbrell (14 points).
The Bears were held to their lowest point total of the season.
"What makes us tough is our defense," Roberts said. "We always want to make it hard for teams to score."
As expected, Delran came out strong, outplaying Middle on both ends. Early in the second quarter, the Panthers trailed by nine.
The Panthers rallied and briefly took the lead before the fourth quarter, which began with a 28-all tie.
Middle turned up its intensity. The Panthers opened the quarter with a 7-2 run and forced three quick turnovers. They knew better than to let up any pressure.
Under normal circumstances, Middle would have slowed the tempo and meticulously swung the ball on offense. Leahy instructed his players to keep attacking the basket.
Sophomore point guard Lauryn Fields and junior forward Olivia Schwartz combined for 14 points during the final quarter.
"We knew that if we were only up by five or six, the game wasn't over," Fields said. "We still had to do what we could to make the lead stronger."
Balance also benefited Middle. The Panthers knew they'd need a complete team effort to beat Delran. Each player did her respective job to near perfection.
Schwartz (16 points) and Fields (14) led the team in scoring. Startare had seven points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals. Anna Ay grabbed 10 rebounds, multiple times on offense to keep Middle's possessions alive.
"It takes a special group of kids. They've all bought into just being a team. This isn't about individual accomplishments, it's about winning a championship," Leahy said.
Family and friends of the Panthers hung around the gym after the game. They snapped photos and shot videos on their cell phones as the girls took turns cutting down pieces of the basketball net to keep as mementos.
The Panthers' final home game of the season ended joyously. The Middle Township community celebrated an unlikely and long-awaited championship.
"It just feels great. We're South Jersey champions," Fields said.
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