BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP — There will be a new Cape-Atlantic League girls basketball champion this season.
Defending champion Mainland Regional High School saw its bid to earn a second straight title end with a 34-25 loss to Middle Township in a semifinal game Thursday at St. Augustine Prep.
Middle, which earned its 17th straight victory, will take on Ocean City in the final at noon Saturday at Stockton University. The Panthers, making their 10th appearance in the championship game, will be seeking their sixth title.
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“It feels great to be playing in the championship game,” Middle junior guard Kira Sides said. “We’ve been working hard all year.”
Mainland (22-3), the No. 3 team in The Press Elite 11, was missing star forward Kylee Watson. Watson, considered one of the top junior players in the country, did not play after hitting her head during the Mustangs’ quarterfinal game against Vineland on Monday.
Watson, clad in her No. 22 jersey, Mainland warmup jacket, jeans and a pair of Ugg boots, delivered a pregame pep talk to her teammates after the player introductions and offered constant encouragement from the bench.
“No one should be surprised at that,” Mainland coach Scott Betson said. “That’s the kind of person she is.”
For a time, it looked as if the Mustangs would pull out the win without Watson. Forward Camryn Dirkes converted a pair of free throws and a layup to give Mainland a 23-22 lead late in the third quarter.
The Mustangs trailed 26-25 with two minutes left in regulation before Middle was able to make a few key plays down the stretch to earn the win.
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“That had to be the ugliest win in my 15-year coaching career at Middle,” Panthers coach John Leahy said. “Mainland handled adversity very well. They played their hearts out. They beat us to every loose ball and fought extremely hard. They deserve all the credit. They outplayed us, but we were fortunate enough to make some plays in the fourth quarter to win.”
Both teams had trouble generating much offense throughout, mainly due to terrific, aggressive defenses.
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Middle scored just two points in the third quarter on a jumper by Sides with one minute, seven seconds left in the period. Yet, the Panthers still led 24-23 because the Mustangs only scored four.
Middle (20-4) scored the final eight points of the game to clinch the victory. Sides scored three points on a layup off an inbounds pass from Victoria London and a foul shot.
Mainland had just two points in the fourth quarter.
“We fought hard and played great defense,” Betson said. “We just couldn’t put the ball in the basket.”
Middle Twp. 15 7 2 10 — 34
Mainland 16 3 4 2 — 25
MT — Sides 14, Herily 5, Barber 4, Hunter 7, Fox 2, Terenik 2.
M — Boggs 9, Dirkes 9, Dalzell 3, Toner 2, Hafetz 2.
Records: Middle Township 20-4; Mainland 22-3.