By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
OCEAN CITY — Mainland Regional certainly had the talent to win the South Jersey Group 3 championship this year. Freshman phenom Kylee Watson was one of the leading scorers in the Cape-Atlantic League; Gabby Boggs, Aly Nazarok and Georgia Schoen all returned as juniors who played significant minutes last year, and the Mustangs got a huge boost halfway through the season when junior guard Fran Geromini became eligible after sitting out the required 30 days after transferring from Holy Spirit.
But Ocean City had the experience. The Red Raiders had been here before, winning last year’s championship, and had put together one of their finest seasons ever, coming into the game with a 28-1 record and a CAL Tournament championship.
In the end, that experience paid off, as Ocean City took the lead for good with a 6-0 run to start the second half, and held off a late push by the Mustangs to win, 38-31, and secure its second straight sectional title.
“When you play a game like this, you really have to finish on the offensive side because both teams have great defense. So, every chance you get, you have to capitalize on it,” said Sadie Ford, one of four seniors in the starting lineup along with Grace Sacco, Alexis Paone and Rosalia Daddi. “Going in tied at halftime, we didn’t have a great offensive start, but (coach Paul Baruffi) told us we just had to make shots and capitalize on everything on the offensive end.”
“I talked about pushing the ball more. I felt we needed to try to get into transition and not so much in a set offense because they are so big. Every time we went around the basket they were rejecting us, so we tried to just spread the floor a little more and get up the floor a little bit quicker,” said Baruffi, who missed the teams’ last meeting — Ocean City’s only loss of the season — to attend to his ailing mother. “It’s just a lot of guts, man. We talked about how we were going to defend them yesterday, and it’s just a lot of girls who aren’t real tall playing bigger than they are and doing their job. Mickey Baker is a heck of an athlete — and all of them are. I give credit to everybody.”
Mainland (22-7) was able to jump out to a 10-4 lead behind some strong inside play by Watson and Boggs, but Ocean City (29-1) chipped away and tied the game, 15-15, heading into halftime. That 6-0 spurt to start the second half put the Red Raiders up, 21-15, and had Mainland playing from behind the rest of the way. Taylor Dalzell drained a 3-pointer to help the Mustangs close the gap to 23-20, but Daddi answered with a three of her own on the other end to extend the lead back to six points.
Baker converted a three-point play with 1:30 remaining to stretch the lead to 35-27 and effectively end the game. Baker was huge down the stretch, converting on all five of her free-throw attempts in the second half and finishing with nine points.
“She’s really an underdog. She’s always doing the little things, like grabbing rebounds, getting assists,” Daddi said of Baker.
Paone added a team-high 12 points and Sacco, Ford and Daddi combined for another 15. Watson led the way for Mainland with nine points, while Geromini finished with eight.
“Grace and Alexis are good at forcing help and dishing, so when you get the ball you just have to be ready to finish,” Ford said.
The Red Raiders said they wanted redemption from that 38-25 loss to Mainland on Feb. 16.
“We wanted this so bad. To lose, especially on Senior Night and without our coach, this was revenge. We definitely wanted it,” Ford said. “This is unlike any other feeling. Going into this game, I had butterflies in my stomach, but as a senior, this could have been my last game — and it was my last home game — so you just have to give it your all and hope for the best.”
“They had a great height advantage. Their girls are big, so keeping them out of the paint tonight was crucial, and getting every rebound we could,” Daddi said. “We had to redeem ourselves from last time. We knew it was going to be a really close game. Our fan section really turned out, and that gave us a lot of support.”
Baruffi said this win took everything he had as a coach, and it showed, as he was in a full sweat several minutes after the game.
“This might have been the toughest (championship). Mainland is so tough. They are young, up-and-coming, our rival. I give them all the credit in the world,” he said. “They have been doing a great job and I know they are going to be great down the road, so this was a fantastic win. A real big win.”
The Red Raiders will take on either Ewing or Neptune on Thursday at Deptford High School in the Group 3 semifinals.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN