LINWOOD — Two years of frustration finally turned into joy for the Mainland Regional High School girls basketball team Monday night.
Kylee Watson scored 15 points as the Mustangs grinded their way to a 41-27 win over rival Ocean City in the South Jersey Group III title game. Mainland had lost to Ocean City in the previous two S.J. finals.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Watson said. “I’m a lot happier than I have been the past two years. I think the outcomes of the past two years helped us get this one as far as having adversity and being able to fight through.”
The victory gave the Mustangs girls program its first sectional title since 1999. Mainland (26-3) will play Westampton Tech (20-7) at 7 p.m. Wednesday in a state semifinal at Deptford High School.
On Monday, Mainland just wore down Ocean City.
The 6-foot-4 Watson also grabbed nine rebounds and blocked four shots. Freshman forward Kaitlyn Boggs contributed seven points and seven rebounds. Senior guard Claudia Mairone sank three timely 3-pointers, including two in the first quarter when points were tough to come by.
“We just had to be persistent and be there for each other,” Watson said. “I think we have amazing team chemistry. Even when (the game) was close in the beginning, we knew we would be able to pull through if we just played together as a team.”
Ocean City (23-7) played without two senior starters who were suspended for a violation of school rules.
“It was a tough situation,” Ocean City coach Paul Baruffi said. “We played with who we had. I thought the girls played extremely hard. We hung in as long as we could. In the end, (Mainland’s) size and their abilities just took over.”
Fans sold out Mainland’s gym to watch the top-seeded Mustangs and second-seeded Ocean City play for the third time this season.
It seemed inevitable that the teams would meet in the final. Monday was their 10th meeting since the start of the 2016-17 season. Mainland holds a 7-3 edge in those games, but Ocean City’s S.J. championships loomed large over the Mustangs.
Mainland knew Monday’s game would not be an artistic success.
“They’re really good at making games ugly,” Mainland coach Scott Betson said of Ocean City. “That’s in a no way a knock. It’s because of the tough, physical defense they play. They’re always in the right spots. You saw that early on. We got the ball inside, but we couldn’t get clean looks.”
The game began to turn in Mainland’s favor in the second quarter. Watson converted a steal into a layup to put the Mustangs up 17-11 with 3 minutes, 10 seconds left in the first half.
Mainland relied on its defense in the second half. Ocean City did not have a basket in the third quarter and scored just nine points in the second half.
Mairone sank a 3-pointer with 5:44 left in the third to give Mainland a 27-19 lead. The Mustangs began the fourth quarter with a 6-0 run. Freshman guard Camryn Dirkes finished that surge when she scored off a steal to give the Mustangs a 37-23 lead with 4:49 left.
Ocean City never threatened again.
“We made some plays in transition,” Betson said. “That was really the difference in the game.”
Mainland posed for photos with the S.J. trophy and celebrated with friends and family after the final buzzer. The title is especially meaningful because most of the Mustangs grew up playing on the same youth teams.
“It’s a great honor to be here with the girls I love, the girls I played with my whole life,” Watson said.
The championship should ease the pressure on the program. Watson and her teammates will never play again with the burden of unfulfilled expectations.
Now, the Mustangs will purse the first girls basketball state title in school history.
“We’re not done,” Mairone said.
Ocean City;7 11 5 4 – 27
Mainlandl;7 14 10 10 – 41
OC – Lappin 4, Holt 6, Finnegan 6, Mirsky 6, Fenton 5
ML – Dirkes 7, Watson 15, Dalzell 3, Mairone 9, Boggs 7