By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
MAYS LANDING — The ACIT girls basketball team is starting to get used to this whole winning thing. Feels pretty good.
The young RedHawks moved into a tie for first place with Millville in the Cape-Atlantic League’s American Conference with a 38-28 victory over Egg Harbor Township, which has dropped five straight since jumping out to a 5-1 start. Sophomore forward Tahirah Howard again led ACIT, scoring a game-high 22 points, including 14 in the first half.
“I thought I was moving kind of slow in the first half, but I guess it was good,” Howard said.
Both teams struggled to score early on, as ACIT took just a 7-5 lead into the second quarter. The RedHawks (8-3, 4-0) pushed its lead to 19-9 late in the second quarter as Howard nailed a pair of 3-pointers, but Liana Fiore answered for EHT (5-6, 1-2) to close the gap to 19-12. Fiore finished with a team-high 14 points, including four 3-pointers.
“When we play good defense, we’re dynamite and that really gets us going on offense. Fiore is so clutch. She’s always ready to make that big shot, but I almost worry sometimes that our girls rely on her a little too much, but she steps up every time,” said Eagles coach Danielle Brady. “It’s really cool to see her rising in the CAL (statistical categories). She’s always been kind of our hidden secret, but she’s really stepping up on defense. Especially against Kayla (Sykes), who is a pretty good player.”
ACIT took an eight-point lead into halftime, but the Eagles came alive in the third quarter, going on a 12-2 run to take a 24-22 lead. Four different players scored during the run, including a bucket by Mackenzie Mahana off an inbounds play that sliced the RedHawks’ lead to 22-21. Fiore then sank another three to give the lead back to EHT.
But with 1:04 left in the third, point guard Gia D’Alessandro drilled a three to tie the game at 25, and Howard scored on a baseline runner with two seconds left to give ACIT the lead for good, 27-25. A 7-0 run to start the fourth by ACIT, highlighted by Haley Elias finding D’Alessandro in transition, put the RedHawks up 34-25 and effectively sealed the win.
“She’s really coming along. She’s been a big help to me and Kayla,” Howard said of D’Alessandro, who only scored four points but did a nice job of breaking EHT’s pressure defense and limiting turnovers.
Brady said her team was energized to play a nearby school that the Eagles were looking up at in the CAL American standings.
“I told the girls in the locker room, this is like playing your neighbor. You want to have better Christmas lights, better Halloween candy,” Brady said. “It took us 10 minutes to get here. These games, it’s all about bragging rights. For us, we’re definitely going to be ready for them next time. It’s a pride thing.”
Howard said the RedHawks are glad the rest of the league is starting to take notice of them.
“I think this is a real eye-opener for most people. Most people don’t expect ACIT (to be in first place) because we’re a tech school. So, I think we’re coming along pretty well,” she said. “We’re doing better than last year, but we’re still starting out slow, like in the beginning of the first half and the beginning of the second half. We have to pick it up more in the third quarter. We just need to work as a team more, pass the ball and just kind of read the court a little more.”
Howard is beginning to emerge as a star. She had 24 points in a victory over Atlantic City last week, and has become ACIT’s go-to scorer, along with Sykes.
“Sometimes it’s a lot of pressure, but I know I just have to play my game, take the pressure and do what I have to do,” Howard said. “I’m working hard to get better and better because I know my team needs me. I’m trying to learn a little bit of everything.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN