By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
LINWOOD — Mainland Regional girls basketball seniors Camryn Dirkes and Kaitlyn Boggs are trying to finish out their high school careers just the same way they started four years ago — as state champions.
And after the top-seeded Mustangs’ performance on Saturday in the South Jersey Group 3 semifinals against No. 4 seed Absegami, it’s easy to believe that duo might just be hoisting that NJSIAA championship plaque before it’s all said and done.
Mainland used a 12-2 run that stretched from the first quarter into the second to take an 18-6 lead and never looked back, cruising to a 43-25 win over the Braves that puts Mainland into the sectional championship game on Monday. The Stangs will host No. 2 Timber Creek at 5 p.m. The Chargers took care of No. 3 Ocean City, 62-27, in Saturday’s other semifinal.
“We’re excited. (Playing for a championship is) always the goal. We’re just trying to take care of business and keep going,” said Mainland sophomore guard Kasey Bretones.
Dirkes and Boggs played big roles for Mainland — as usual — combining for 15 points. Boggs scored just two, but played great defense in the post, and Dirkes helped carry the load in the first half, scoring six points in the first quarter and three more in the third. She also had several assists and hit a big 3-pointer that gave Mainland an early 13-4 lead.
“Her experience is enormous, especially when it’s one of your primary ball-handlers and primary perimeter defenders,” said Mainland coach Scott Betson. “She had a tough time with two fouls (early) but she battled through that, and all that is maturity and experience. But, she was kind of like that when she got here as a freshman, that’s just who she is.”
Absegami (16-10) had a tough time scoring in the first half but stayed in it thanks to senior guard Jackie Fortis, who has helped transform the Braves back into a sectional contender throughout her career. She helped lead the Braves to five state tournament wins during her career. She scored two straight buckets late in the second quarter to get Absegami to within 22-14, but Mainland sophomore Ava Mazur drilled a 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the Stangs into the locker room with a 25-14 lead.
“That was very big,” Bretones said. “Hitting a three like that at the end (of the first half) in a game like this really builds our momentum. We were all excited when we got into the locker room.”
Absegami hung around in the second half and trailed 32-19 heading into the fourth quarter. The Braves got as close as 34-21 on a driving layup by Fortis with 7:11 remaining, but then Bretones found Dirkes on an inbounds play and Dirkes added another bucket on a driving layup to push the lead out to 38-21.
The key for Mainland (26-2) was being able to hold Absegami star freshman Reese Downey in check, and they were able to do that with the perimeter defense of Bretones and Dirkes. They limited Downey and Gami’s other freshman, Julia Hartman, to a combined eight points.
“I know she’s a great shooter,” Bretones said of Downey, “so I wanted to give her enough room so that I wouldn’t get beat by a quick blow-by, but I also was close enough so that she wouldn’t shoot it. I always play defense more off (my opponent), but I had to get closer to stop her outside shots. When she gets going, she’s on fire. There were some points when I got lazy and got caught in some screens — there were some points when I was like, ‘uh oh.’”
“We’ve been working all season on perfecting that half-court defense, and it’s starting to come together now and it’s really helping us, especially transition offense,” Dirkes said. “We always say that our defense feeds into our offense, and now that we’re getting into a defensive groove every game, it’s really contributing to our offense.”
“It was Cam and Kasey because we know they like the high ball screen, so we just put our two best perimeter defenders on the ball and on the screener to make it tough,” coach Betson explained. “The two of them, all year, statistically, have held kids down under their (scoring) average. We have faith in their ability to do that.”
Mainland is headed to the sectional final for the third time in four years. In the 2018-2019 season the Stangs went 28-4 and beat Ocean City in the South Jersey Group 3 final before beating Westampton Tech and Chatham to claim the first overall Group 3 state title in program history. The following year, Mainland lost to Ocean City in the sectional final, and last year there were no state playoffs because of the covid-19 pandemic.
“This means everything,” Dirkes said. “Everyone is super excited, especially the younger girls. This is an experience that doesn’t happen to a lot of people, so we’re excited.”
Timber Creek comes in having won eight in a row and is 20-5 on the season. Senior Amaya Burch averages 23 points per game and freshman Nal’La Bennett averages close to 14 points per game and has nearly 100 assists.
Said Betson, “it’s going to be tough. Every level gets a little bit harder. I’m about to tell (my team in the locker room) that anything worth doing doesn’t come easily. It’s going to be a battle, I imagine, but we’re looking forward to it.”
What’s next: No. 1 Mainland Regional hosts No. 2 Timber Creek on Monday at 5 p.m. in the South Jersey Group 3 championship game. Absegami’s season is complete.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays