By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Middle Township girls basketball coach John Leahy took a gamble in overtime of the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament championship on Saturday afternoon at Stockton University.
Ocean City senior point guard Grace Sacco made him pay for it.
With the score tied at 37 and less than three minutes remaining, Leahy instructed his team not to guard Sacco and allowed her to run all but 10 seconds off the clock while dribbling the ball at mid-court. Then, as the clock wound down, Sacco drove to her right and hit a running layup over two Panthers defenders to give the Red Raiders the lead. Bridget Ruskey’s desperation 3-point attempt with less than a second to play fell short, and Ocean City walked off with a 39-37 victory, regaining the championship Middle Township took from it a year ago when the Panthers won in overtime.
“(Coach Paul) Baruffi didn’t tell me what he was doing, but once he said hold it out, I knew what was happening. I was surprised they didn’t come out (to guard me), but I guess they were thinking if they could get a stop it would be their ball coming down the other end and they could win it. Luckily, I made that shot, and that was all she wrote,” Sacco said. “The same thing happened at the end of regulation, so it was a second-chance opportunity for me to redeem myself. It’s definitely nerve-wracking, but it worked out.”
Ocean City never could pull away from the Panthers despite getting star guard Jenna Herlihy in foul trouble in the first half. Herlihy fouled out with 3:45 remaining in regulation, but still Middle was able to tie the game, 37-37, on a Bridget Ruskey basket with 55 seconds left. Ocean City held for the last shot, but Sacco was denied on a driving layup. The Red Raiders got the offensive rebound, but a last-second putback didn’t fall, sending the game to overtime.
There were only four possessions in overtime. The teams traded missed shots before Ocean City began holding the ball, and Sacco’s layup provided the only two points of the extra period.
“That was huge for us that (Herlihy) got those three fouls early, but they did a great job of coming back and using the rest of their players to their advantage. We had to be good defensively all around. Everyone had to be working and boxing out,” said fellow senior guard Alexis Paone. “I was expecting (Baruffi) to waste as much time as possible to try to get us the last shot. I thought that was smart of him to run the clock down. They sat there waiting for us. I thought we were going to have to go to a stall and really take care of the ball in the last three minutes, but we just held it.
“The whole game (Grace) had been driving to the basket and they weren’t calling any fouls. So for her to get that last shot was a really good way to end the game.”
Senior center Rosalia Daddi said she was shocked to see Middle Township’s overtime strategy.
“I was standing there waiting for (Baruffi) to call something. I was getting nervous as time was ticking down. I thought they were going to try to defend to use more clock in their favor, but we got it down (to 10 seconds) and did what we had to do,” Daddi said. “Grace can do anything. She’s a critical part of our team. They beat us last year in overtime, so it was great winning it this year as seniors and having another CAL championship. It’s awesome.”
The game crept along at a snail’s pace, as the Red Raiders used as much time as possible on each possession. Ocean City held a 10-3 lead after one quarter, and led just 14-12 at halftime.
“There’s never really a high scorer with us. But every little thing counts. Getting layups — Emma Finnegan came in and took a charge — getting rebounds, drawing fouls. Every little thing counts, especially with the girls coming off the bench,” Sacco said. “It’s always a hard-fought battle when we play Middle Township. We’re pretty evenly matched and their coaching is great. So it’s always nice to beat Middle, especially in this game.”
“Every possession matters in games like these,” Paone added. “Both teams are talented with evenly matched players, so you have to be really mindful of the passes you are making, and you want to get the best shots. We wanted to get as many layups as we could, rather than threes or deeper shots.”
Ruskey led Middle with 11 points and eight rebounds, while Ocean City was able to limit Herlihy — who scored 19 points in a semifinals win over Mainland Regional — to just six points. Paone (14 points) and Sacco (10) were the only two Red Raiders in double figures in scoring. Ocean City shot just 2-of-9 from three-point range and 5-of-10 from the line, but committed just six turnovers. The Red Raiders also limited the Panthers to just 36 percent shooting for the game.
“Last year it was a bad ending, but we ended up winning South Jersey, so we were able to bounce back from the loss,” Sacco said. “This is definitely nice for all the seniors. We’ve had a great season so far, and it’s not over yet. We definitely earned this.”
Championships seem to follow Paone through her athletic career. She’s been a part of several South Jersey and state championships as a field hockey player, and now has won two CAL basketball titles and a South Jersey title in hoops in 2016.
“This never gets old,” she said. “It gets better every time.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN