By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
BUENA VISTA — The Ocean City Red Raiders have waited a year to get another shot at Middle Township in the Cape-Atlantic League tournament championship game. On Saturday, they’ll get their chance for revenge.
The Panthers beat the Red Raiders in overtime in last year’s final, and the top two seeds will do battle again this season as Ocean City pulled away late to beat Holy Spirit, 44-35, in the second semifinal game on Thursday night at St. Augustine Prep. Middle Township, the No. 2 seed, held off a late run by third-seeded Mainland to win the first semifinal, 42-39.
Fifth-seeded Holy Spirit gave Ocean City (24-1) fits in the first half, got Red Raiders center Rosalia Daddi in foul trouble, and went into the break deadlocked at 18-18. But Ocean City outscored the Spartans 17-10 in the third quarter, including a 9-0 run that turned a 28-26 deficit into a 35-28 lead.
“We played them twice in the regular season and they were close games both times. We knew they wanted to get some revenge on us,” said senior point guard Grace Sacco, who led all scorers with 14 points while adding four assists and two rebounds. “A couple of the girls, I’ve played with before, and they are great athletes. Ayanna (Jones) has been doing great this season. But we’re athletic, too, so it was a good matchup.”
Ocean City has been one of the best defensive teams all season long, and they were able to limit talented players such as Jones, Zhyana Young and Savanna Holt to just 10 points combined. The Spartans (17-8) got a big lift from Ariyanna Wilkes, who finished with a team-high 12 points, and freshman Ciani Redd-Howard, who added nine points and five rebounds.
But, in typical Ocean City fashion, the Red Raiders got points when it needed to and didn’t turn the ball over. They had just six turnovers, while forcing Holy Spirit into 15, and Mickey Baker and Alexis Paone each scored eight points while Rosalia Daddi added seven points, five rebounds and three blocked shots. Emma Finnegan, Danielle Donoghue, Tori Rolls and Kilie Wyers contributed key minutes off the bench, combining for five points, two rebounds and a steal.
“We’re pretty deep this year, and it always helps having girls come off the bench if somebody gets into foul trouble,” Sacco said. “We get that spark off the bench until we can get the starters back in. I guess we wore them out, our offense started to work and shots started to fall.”
“In the first half, I was getting into foul trouble. I just had to be able to relax, take a step back and still be able to play tough (without picking up more fouls),” Daddi said.
Daddi said Redd-Howard, Young and Regina Lamcken provided a tough matchup for herself, Baker and Sadie Ford in the low post.
“Both of those girls are strong girls, so we had to wall up on them and keep them out of the paint because they are dangerous players,” Daddi said.
Redemption is definitely on the Red Raiders’ minds as they begin preparing for Saturday’s championship game at Stockton University at noon.
“It feels great. We have a chance at redemption now,” Sacco said. “It’s senior year and the season is coming to a close, but we’re not done yet.”
Added Daddi, “It’s redemption. We played them earlier in the season when they were without (Bridget) Ruskey, but hopefully we can get the win and redeem ourselves from last year. Hopefully we can win the CAL and go to the playoffs and see what we can do there.”
No. 2 Middle Township 42, No. 3 Mainland Regional 39: Jenna Herlihy is one of Middle Township’s smaller players, but the senior guard had a huge impact, scoring a game-high 19 points while adding four rebounds, three assists and three steals to lead the Panthers into the championship game.
Mainland (19-6) made a late comeback attempt as Georgia Schoen and Fran Geromini both scored in the final 10 seconds, but the Mustangs simply ran out of time.
Geromini drilled a 3-pointer with 4:20 remaining to cut Middle’s lead to 32-28, but Herlihy responded with a pair of buckets, including a layup in transition off a steal by Ruskey, as the Panthers answered and extended their lead to 36-28. From that point on, Mainland was forced to play catch-up, and Middle made it tough by nailing free throws in the final minute.
A three by Schoen got Mainland within five, 38-33, with 1:15 to go, and after a Ruskey free throw Kylee Watson scored to make it 39-35 with 36 seconds remaining. But Ruskey got a huge offensive rebound off a missed free throw, then hit a couple of free throws to push the lead to 42-35.
“We fought hard, we just have to play smarter. I liked our energy and our effort, we just had too many mental mistakes,” said Mainland coach Scott Betson. “They did a nice job of using their versatility to score from different spots on the court. We just had some momentary mental lapses on defense on stuff we had scouted and talked about, and that really hurt us.”
Herlihy and Ruskey did much of the damage for Middle, as Ruskey chipped in 11 points, six rebounds and three assists. Watson finished with 15 points to lead Mainland and Geromini added 10. Gabby Boggs finished with eight rebounds and Schoen added seven points.
“It was frustrating. We had a couple of bad bounces, but our inability to make a run was because we weren’t able to get stops on the defensive end,” Betson said. “We had 39 points, which isn’t a bad number for us. Early on we had some good looks, but I think we were a little too jazzed up and they weren’t going down for us. If we make a couple of those shots, it’s probably a different game. I think we were just a little too amped up.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN