ABSECON - Millville High School isn't often listed among local high school girls basketball contenders.
Times are changing. The Thunderbolts proved that Sunday with their eighth consecutive win.
Millville survived a slow start and defeated Buena Regional 62-52 in a Prime Events Shootout game at Holy Spirit. Amanda Smith (19 points, five steals) and Lexi Bruno (17 points, eight assists) paced the Thunderbolts, who haven't lost since Jan. 4.
Millville (10-5) is having its best season in more than a decade. The Thunderbolts last won 10 games in the 2010-11 season but finished last in the Cape-Atlantic League American Conference.
Millville is a different team since the addition of Bruno, a junior point guard who transferred from Sacred Heart and played her first game in the Thunderbolts' orange-and-blue uniforms on Jan. 17. Bruno can score from virtually anywhere on the court but is also one of the area's best ball handlers and distributors.
"My chemistry level (with the team) clicked right away, and I've played with Amanda for a long time," Bruno said.
After falling 10 points behind Buena (7-7) during the first quarter, Millville closed the second quarter on a 13-6 run that pulled them within three points. Katrina Gaskins gave the Thunderbolts life on the offensive end, scoring all 11 of her points in the first half.
In the third quarter, Bruno, Smith and Ashli Weems (10 points, nine rebounds) put on a show.
During a 22-9 third quarter, the Thunderbolts amped up their pressure on the Chiefs. Smith, a sophomore guard, converted several steals into easy baskets. Weems, who didn't play in the first half, scored eight of her 10 points in the first three minutes of the period.
"The defensive pressure we were able to apply disrupted their tempo," Millville coach Jason Kessler said.
A sluggish start had the Thunderbolts playing catch-up for much of the first half. Kessler said a lack of energy by the Thunderbolts in recent practices was directly reflected in the 19-6 run that Buena had to open the game.
Janay Smith scored seven of her 14 points in the first quarter, and most of them came off high-post passes. Once Millville started using a full-court press midway through the second quarter, the Thunderbolts started to outplay the Chiefs.
"We didn't come out as strong as we normally would, and it hurt us," Bruno said. "We knew we had to come out with intensity (in the second half) and step up our defense if we wanted to win the game."
There wasn't much Millville could do, however, to stop Buena's Caroline Santiago. The senior led all scorers with 27 points and shot with remarkable accuracy from the field (13-for-15). She also had eight rebounds.
Buena coach Misty Russo said she has seen drastic improvement by her team throughout the season, even in losses.
Russo instructed her players to tightly guard Bruno and Smith to force other players to shoot. It worked in the first half, as the Chiefs restricted the duo to nine total points.
"We talked about making other players score and we tried to eliminate their scoring. … I'm really proud of my team," Russo said. "We're a small Group II school playing a big Group IV school."
After dropping five of its first seven, Millville is on a roll. The Thunderbolts' winning streak is the longest active one in the CAL. Cedar Creek has won seven in a row.
Millville will talk about fixing its energy issues before a pivotal game Tuesday against Holy Spirit. The Spartans are unbeaten in the American Division, with Millville trailing by three games.
The Thunderbolts, who are 4-1 at home, will need a strong start against Holy Spirit to keep its streak alive.
"They're all enjoying the ride, but we want them to seize each day and make the most of their opportunities," Kessler said.
Contact Brittany Grugan:
Buena Regional 16 12 9 15-52
Millville 6 19 22 15-62
BR-Seyler 2 0-0 5, Miro 1 2-2 5, Santiago 13 1-6 27, Smith 6 2-3 14, DiBiase 0 1-2 1. Totals-22 6-15 52.
M-Bruno 5 6-9 17, Read 1 1-2 3, Smith 7 4-6 19, Taylor 0 2-3 2, Gaskins 5 0-0 11, Weems 5 0-4 10. Totals-23 13-24 62.
3-pointers-Seyler, Miro BR; Bruno, Smith, Gaskins M.
Records-Buena 7-7, Millville 10-5.