By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
LINWOOD — For a while in the second half on Tuesday, scrappy Lower Cape May Regional was frustrating No. 3 Mainland Regional in the opening round of the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament. Then the Mustangs said to themselves, “OK, enough of this — it’s Kylee Watson time.”
After the sixth-seeded Caper Tigers shaved the deficit to just four points, 30-26 — the Mustangs’ 6-foot-3 freshman phenom scored back-to-back buckets in the paint to push the lead to eight points. Mainland’s defense did the rest, allowing Lower Cape May to score just five points in the final four minutes as the Mustangs won, 37-31, to punch their ticket to Thursday’s semifinal round at St. Augustine Prep. Mainland takes on second-seeded and defending champion Middle Township, a 58-33 winner over No. 7 Millville.
“Kylee did a nice job of recognizing that she had a mismatch and demanding the ball in that situation. Those points were huge, they turned out to be the difference in the game, so I’m glad we went to her,” said Mainland coach Scott Betson. “A lot of that is on her in seeing that, but also the other girls for getting her the ball. We struggle with that at times, so it was good that we got it done.”
Mainland (19-5) took an 11-9 lead early in the second quarter on the first of two 3-pointers from Claudia Mairone, and threes by Georgia Schoen and Fran Geromini put the Mustangs up 17-11. Mairone’s second 3-pointer came with 1:20 left in the first half and gave Mainland a 20-11 lead heading into the break.
Lower Cape May (12-12) didn’t go away, however. Winter Favre converted a traditional three-point play to cut the Mustangs’ lead to 28-21 early in the fourth quarter, and she followed that up with a baseline drive for a five-point swing that made it 28-23. The Caper Tigers’ pressure defense forced a turnover that led to Favre’s second basket.
Betson quickly called a timeout to get his team refocused.
“We always work on (breaking the press),” said junior guard Fran Geromini, who finished with seven points. “As long as we get the ball back to the middle we don’t have a problem.”
“We needed to play better team defense. The threes were definitely killers. We just had to stay in front of our girls more and finish at the other end,” said Gabby Boggs, a junior forward who added eight points. “All the games are really important now. Not that they weren’t important before, but now (in the league tournament and state playoffs) you either win or you go home. We have big goals and we’re trying to play the best we can as a team and get to the finals.”
“There are a lot of things we need to clean up, especially late in the game when we were giving up easy looks, allowing them to shoot open threes and then not hitting free throws at the other end. Those are things we’ve been doing a nice job with, so it was kind of frustrating to see that happen tonight. But they do a good job of hanging with everybody, and that’s what they did tonight so a lot of credit has to go to Lower,” Betson added. “It doesn’t really matter how it happens as long as you move on, so we’re excited about that. But we do have some things we need to improve on.”
Watson finished with a team-high 11 points, including nine in the second half, and Boggs scored a key late basket that gave Mainland a 36-26 lead with 3:26 to go.
“We’ve been in some big games, and to be able to come out with some wins gave us some momentum going into the playoff season and some confidence that we could hang in there against really good teams, and finish,” Boggs said.
“We have a quality team to prepare for in Middle Township,” Betson said. “We just have make sure we take care of breaking the press and using our timeouts. That’s what we save them for, exactly that kind of situation. We also have to make free throws late in the game — just little things that everybody talks about when you’re in tight games.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN