Girls basketball: Ocean City, Middle Twp. survive scares to advance to CAL Tournament title game

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher BUENA VISTA TWP. — Mainland Regional and Wildwood Catholic could easily be playing for the Cape-Atlantic League championship at noon on Saturday at Stockton University. Instead, it will be the top two seeds — No. 1 Ocean City and No. 2 Middle Township — as the Red Raiders and Panthers hung on for wins in the final seconds of two entertaining semifinal games on Wednesday night at St. Augustine Prep. Middle Township got 15 points from Jenna Herlihy and 11 from Bridget Ruskey, and a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer by Wildwood Catholic’s Caitlin McMullan bounced off the back iron as the Panthers hung on for a 40-38 victory in the first semifinal. Ocean City outlasted rival Mainland 29-26 in the other semifinal, despite its offense grinding to a virtual halt for two quarters. Ocean City (21-3) jumped out to a 15-7 lead as senior guard Nicole Piergross scored all eight of her first-half points in that quarter, but Mainland (18-6) tightened up defensively and allowed just four points in the next two quarters. The Mustangs struggled to score themselves, however, and were still down 17-14 at halftime despite limiting Ocean City to just two points in the second quarter. Mainland took its first lead of the game early in the fourth quarter when Georgia Schoen scoring on a driving layup to make it 20-19. Ocean City tied it right back up on a free throw from Olivia Briggs before the Mustangs got a free throw from Schoen and a 3-point play from Melanie Malcolm to take a 24-20 lead. Mainland held the lead until Piergross nailed a three to give Ocean City a 27-26 lead with 42 seconds left for what turned out to be the winning basket. “We definitely needed that. I think me and Nicole, it was going through our heads that this is the last time we’re going to play in the CAL Tournament, so we both did as much as we could tonight,” said Briggs, who scored a game-high 13 points. “It’s always tough coming from behind. Mainland played some really good defense on us, so we were at a gridlock for a long time. They scout us so much and we scout them so much. We know everyone’s plays, so it was just all about who could come out with the win tonight. We made it when it counted. When we played Mainland last time it was the same type of game. It’s always a defensive battle against them.” Ocean City's Grace Sacco puts up a shot during the Red Raiders' 29-26 win over Mainland Regional in the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament semifinals on Wednesday at St. Augustine Prep. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O'Sullivan) Ocean City’s Grace Sacco puts up a shot during the Red Raiders’ 29-26 win over Mainland Regional in the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament semifinals on Wednesday at St. Augustine Prep. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O’Sullivan) “Nicole, that’s her shot. We run a ton of plays to her. That play was actually there three times in the fourth quarter and we didn’t kick it to her. So I was glad we kicked it for her to shoot it, and she made it,” said Ocean City coach Paul Baruffi. “I didn’t think we ever panicked. I think we forced stuff, and that’s something we’ll have to look at. There were opportunities there that we weren’t seeing, and that’s one thing, I’m going to look at the film and we’re going to have to correct that.” Ocean City struggled with the size matchup Mainland presents. Malcolm, Megan Stafford and Gabby Boggs all 5-foot-10 or taller, while the Red Raiders’ tallest players — Briggs and Rosalia Daddi — are only about 5-9. “We battled through it. Give Mainland credit, they played us tough. They are big and it’s hard to get any points inside on them. They limited us to one shot most of the time,” Baruffi said. Normally, Ocean City relies heavily on point guard Grace Sacco’s ability to drive the lane, draw attention, and either hit layups or kick the ball out to a wide-open shooter at the 3-point line. But having the 6-foot-2 Boggs guarding the lane negated much of the Red Raiders’ offensive strength. Sacco didn’t score, but was still able to dish out five assists. “Nothing was falling for Grace, but the thing about her is, she’s never going to stop. Her drawing people is what sets up the stuff that you see when we’re not getting anything else,” Baruffi said. “But (Mainland) is big. It’s hard to get anything inside on them, and we’re battling them on the defensive end covering some pretty big girls, so it wasn’t easy. And their guards have improved tremendously since the beginning of the year. I don’t know how we pulled that one out.” Mainland Regional senior Megan Stafford brings the ball up in the second half against Ocean City. Mainland Regional senior Megan Stafford brings the ball up in the second half against Ocean City. Malcolm finished with 12 points to lead Mainland and Schoen added seven, while Stafford and Boggs combined to pull down 21 rebounds. The Mustangs were hurt by turnovers, however, as Ocean City forced 19 of them and finished with nine steals, including three by Sacco. The victory gives Ocean City a chance to defend its title. The Red Raiders beat Lower Cape May to win it last year. “This is always tough. We saw the game between Wildwood Catholic and Middle. The atmosphere you’re in, the intensity of the game, it’s not easy. And it shouldn’t be,” Baruffi said. “But give Mainland a lot of credit, they played extremely hard. We were lucky to come out with the win.” “We’re definitely excited. Middle is going to be a tough matchup, but we’re excited to play them a third time,” Briggs said. Middle Township 40, Wildwood Catholic 38: The Panthers, who have lost twice this season to the CAL National champion Red Raiders, earned another shot at them by coming from behind in the final minute to take down Wildwood Catholic. The Crusaders (20-5) took a 38-37 lead with less than a minute to go when McMullan nailed a 3-pointer, but Middle Township (22-3) responded as Herlihy hit a layup, then hit 1-of-2 from the free-throw line with 4.8 seconds left to give the Panthers a 40-38 lead. McMullen got the inbounds pass, dribbled up the right side of the court and heaved up a desperation 3-point attempt that hit off the back of the iron as the Panthers escaped. The game was so close that each team shot 34 percent from the field and Wildwood Catholic shot 26 percent from 3-point range while Middle shot 28 percent. Each team had 15 turnovers. The biggest difference was at the line, as Middle went 8-of-17 while the Crusaders were 0-for-7. Contact Dave O’Sullivan:; on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]


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