CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — The Middle Township High School girls basketball team’s defense is its greatest asset.
Under eighth-year coach John Leahy, the Panthers have operated a stingy man-to-man defense that often shuts down opposing teams. It’s not unusual for Middle to keep opponents below their average points total.
Middle Township was at its best defensively Thursday.
The Panthers, the No. 2 seed and ranked No. 11 in The Press Elite 11, beat West Deptford 32-18 in a South Jersey Group II quarterfinal game. Middle (22-5) will host Sterling in a semifinal game Saturday at 6 p.m.
It’s difficult to come back late in the game from even a deficit of a few points against Middle. The Panthers started the fourth quarter up by 10.
West Deptford was unable to speed the game up enough to try to mount a comeback.
“I don’t know that in my eight years that I’ve seen a tougher display of straight-up, man-to-man defense,” Leahy said. “Nice and physical, nothing dirty. There were no gimmicks.”
West Deptford (20-8), the No. 7 seed, rode a seven-game winning streak into the quarterfinals, including its first home playoff win in 29 years in the opening round against Deptford.
But the Eagles struggled to penetrate Middle’s defense, sometimes going minutes before taking an open shot. Tarryn Bundy led West Deptford with 10 points. The Panthers’ rebounding took away most of West Deptford’s opportunities for putbacks.
Senior guard Sarah Roberts played an integral role in Middle’s swarming defense.
Roberts is an underrated defender who can make a huge impact on a game without scoring a point. On Thursday, she broke through screens and constantly fought to knock the ball away from West Deptford’s players.
“It’s always our main goal, to try to hold their best shooters and offensive players below their average,” Roberts said. “It says a lot about how much pride we have in our defense.”
Coaches often give their teams scouting reports for upcoming playoff games so their players know what to expect from unfamiliar opponents.
He knew what to run at practice to prepare his team. But he wouldn’t tell the Panthers anything about West Deptford’s playing style.
“(The coaches) wanted us to come in not knowing anything, so we could play without fear of making mistakes or things like that,” Roberts said. “And it helped, I think. We weren’t as nervous as we were (in February losses) against Sacred Heart and Ocean City.”
Postseason games are stressful for high school players. An entire season rides on their shoulders.
“Sometimes our kids, when you give them too much detail, they tend to overthink things,” Leahy said. “So we’ve gone in the opposite direction and not talked much about who we’re playing.”
That approach worked Thursday. Middle was just as smooth offensively. The Panthers ran their methodical swing offense calmly.
All six Middle players who saw major minutes scored. Sophomore Lauryn Fields led with 13 points, five rebounds and three assists.
“We just wanted to be patient, run our stuff and stay composed and get good shots,” Fields said.
Middle faces a tough semifinal opponent in Sterling (20-5). Sterling easily defeated Buena Regional 64-16 in its quarterfinal game.
The Panthers will look at that matchup with the same attitude that enabled their quarterfinal victory.
“We came in with trust in our own teammates and a belief that we were going to win,” Roberts said.
Contact Brittany Grugan:
West Deptford 6 2 6 4-18
Middle Township 11 4 9 8-32
WD—Kirschling 1 0-0 2, Knoblock 1 0-0 2, Paratore 1 0-0 2, Bundy 5 0-1 10, Carrero 0 2-2 2. Totals—8 2-3 18.
MT—Ay 2 0-0 4, Startare 2 0-0 4, Fields 4 4-4 13, Roberts 0 1-2 1, Schwartz 2 0-0 5, Peterson 2 0-0 5. Totals—12 5-6 32.
3-pointers—Fields, Schwartz, Peterson MT.
Records—West Deptford 20-8; Middle 22-5.