DEPTFORD - The Middle Township High School girls basketball team hopes it saw its future Wednesday night.
Point Pleasant Borough pulled away in the second half to beat Middle 54-38 in a state Group II semifinal at Deptford High School.
Pt. Borough, the Central Jersey champion, will play for the state title Sunday at the Pine Belt Arena in Toms River against the winner of tonight's semifinal between Malcolm X. Shabazz and Pequannock.
Pt. Pleasant lost in the state semifinal last year. Middle hopes to build on Wednesday's experience and eventually duplicate Pt. Pleasant's journey to a state final.
"It's one thing to lose," Middle coach John Leahy said, "but we have to learn from it. We've raised the bar. Winning a South Jersey title and getting to a state final should be our goal each year. It's up to the underclassmen to take this forward and use this game as motivation."
Middle (24-6) entered Wednesday's game as the underdog. Pt. Pleasant (23-8) features one of the state's top players in Kelly Hughes, a 5-foot-10 junior who has attracted the attention of several Division I colleges.
Middle controlled Hughes and the pace of the game in the first half.
Middle's Sarah Roberts tried to deny Hughes the ball all over the court. Hughes, who finished with 19 points, sank just 4-of-10 shots in the first half.
Middle trailed 17-13 after the first two quarters but felt comfortable at halftime.
"If we took care of the ball, we felt we could turn it into a halfcourt game," Leahy said. "That's what we did in the first half."
Meanwhile, Pt. Pleasant coach David Drew urged his team to play at faster pace in the second half.
"We talked at halftime about really getting after it on our press," Drew said. "Give credit to Middle Township. They slowed the game down (in the first half). We started playing their game. We talked at halftime about (how) we really had to start playing our game if we wanted to succeed."
Pt. Pleasant did just that in the third quarter. The Ocean County school used its full-court press to force Middle into 11 third-quarter turnovers. Pt. Pleasant converted many of them into easy baskets.
Pt. Pleasant finished the quarter with an 11-0 run that turned a six-point lead into a 35-18 advantage.
"Our first key coming into the game was taking care of the ball," Leahy said. "We knew a big key to their game was their press. We needed to be stronger with the ball, and to their credit they're very active. They got a lot of deflections."
Middle did not fade away, however. The Panthers switched Kristina Startare to the high post in the fourth quarter. The senior was able to pass to open Middle players on the perimeter.
Middle sophomore Marinna Peterson sank a pair of 3-pointers in the first minute of the fourth quarter. The Panthers cut the lead to eight points on four occasions - the last one with 1 minute, 25 seconds left - but they could get no closer.
"Our kids all year have really stuck together," Leahy said. "We got to a point where we could have folded, and it could have gotten ugly."
Despite Wednesday's loss, this was a breakthrough season for Middle. The Panthers won a South Jersey title after losing in the 2009 and 2010 finals. Leahy said Middle's success is a tribute to the team's seniors - Roberts, Startare and Anna Ay.
"A loss to a great team is not going to overshadow the success we had this year," Leahy said. "Just to get to this game is tremendous for our kids and our community."
Contact Michael McGarry:
Point Pleasant Borough 8 9 18 19-54
Middle Township 5 8 5 20-38
PPB-K. Hughes 6 7-9 19, Malleck 6 3-5 15, Macchi 3 1-2 7, L. Hughes 2 2-2 8, Havens 1 2-2 5. Totals 18 15-20 54.
MT-Schwartz 2 1-2 6, Roberts 1 3-4 5, Fields 4 4-4 12, Startare 3 3-5 9, Peterson 2 0-0 6. Totals 12 11-15 38.
3-pointers-L. Hughes (2), Havens PPB. Schwartz, Peterson (2) MT,
Records-Middle 24-6; Pt. Pleasant Borough 23-8.