By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
ATLANTIC CITY — Trying to defend the Mainland Regional girls basketball team is kind of like trying to open a Christmas present with oven mitts on — it’s going to take a while to figure out how to get it done. The problem is, once you figure out how to stop one player, another already has 16 points and you’re trailing by double digits.
One game it might be Kaitlyn Boggs dominating in the paint, registering a double-double. Another game it might be senior guard Camryn Dirkes pouring in 17 point and dishing out a bunch of assists.
Host Atlantic City got another reminder — it’s third of the season — of how diverse Mainland’s lineup is on Thursday night in the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament semifinals. On this night it was sophomore guard Ava Mazur, who sank five 3-pointers and finished with a game-high 22 points to lead top-seeded Mainland to a 52-37 win over the Vikings. The Mustangs (22-2) advance to the championship game, where they’ll meet No. 3 Wildwood Catholic on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Absegami High School.
“We shot the ball well, especially in the first half,” said Mainland coach Scott Betson. “It’s a good thing we built that halftime lead because they just chipped away at it the whole second half. We finally made some free throws late. They are really good and it’s hard to beat a good team three times (in one season), and we had to come to their home court to do it.”
“Every time I play in A.C. in this gym I’m not too hot with my threes. Usually I am, so it really gets into my head. Before the game my dad (Billy) always tells me, ‘just keep shooting and they’ll fall for you,’ and that’s exactly what I did. I got them in early and that’s kind of what sparked me,” Mazur said. “(That first one helped) a lot. I remember the first one I took was an airball the last A.C. game, so it was way different this time.”
Mainland beat Atlantic City 55-51 in Linwood in mid-January, then topped the Vikings 51-27 on Feb. 11. In the first game, Dirkes scored 20 points and Bella Mazur — Ava’s twin sister — added 13, and in the second game point guard Kasey Bretones led the way with a team-high 14 points.
On Thursday night the Mazur twins got Mainland going early, as Ava hit a 3-pointer and Bella added a jumper to give the Mustangs an early 11-6 lead. The twins combined for three more long-range shots as the Stangs jumped out to a 32-18 lead by halftime. Atlantic City (12-10) turned up the pressure defense in the second half and cut the deficit to 10 points on couple of occasions, and got as close as 39-31 by the end of the third quarter, but Mainland answered early in the fourth when Dirkes found Boggs for an inside bucket and a 43-31 lead. From there, Atlantic City simply couldn’t cut into the deficit enough to have a chance, and Mainland hit its free throws down the stretch.
“Their pressure messes up what we had planned,” Ava Mazur said. “But we have really good guards, Kasey Bretones and Camryn Dirkes really handle the ball well for us, and that was the key.”
(Our 3-point shooting) gave us a cushion early so that even when they made their run we still felt comfortable with where the lead was at. It was a bunch of broken plays, too, because they really pressured us, but Ava stepped up and made some shots,” Betson said.
Bella Mazur finished with six points and a team-high 11 rebounds while Dirkes added 10 points and Bretones finished with eight points and seven rebounds. Atlantic City was led by Quanirah Montague, who had 13 points and six rebounds, and Sanai Garrison-Macon, who added 12 points before being injured late in the fourth quarter.
The win by the Mustangs is part of an incredible week by Mainland winter sports teams, as the boys basketball team scored two upsets to make the CAL Tournament championship game as a No. 8 seed, and the girls swimming team will compete for a state championship on Sunday at GCIT.
“It’s amazing. I remember being in middle school and watching the high school girls above me, and every time they would get to the championship game and they would fall. It’s great to know that it’s my chance, and hopefully we win and come out strong,” Ava Mazur said. “We drive all the way to Millville (on Wednesday night) to watch the boys and they came here to support us. It’s great. Now we’ll both be at Absegami. We’ll be there early to watch them and hopefully they’ll stay and watch us.”
“The situation on Friday was awesome because it was Mainland vs. EHT, right next door to each other, so our girls went over (to EHT) and cheered on the boys after our game, and the boys made it a point to come here (tonight) and sit behind our bench,” Betson said, referring to first-round CAL Tournament games against EHT. “It’s really good energy in the building, the kids all really like each other. And girls swimming is in the state final (on Sunday), so it’s been a great week. This sophomore class at Mainland right now might be the best athletic class I’ve seen come through in my 15 years here.”
What’s next: No. 1 Mainland vs. No. 3 Wildwood Catholic in the CAL Tournament championship on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Absegami High School.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays