By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — When you’re a basketball team on the bubble of your league tournament, every win is big and every game is a chance to prove you belong in postseason play.
The Egg Harbor Township girls squad took another step on Friday afternoon toward a possible invitation as an at-large bid to the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament by winning its fourth straight game. The host Eagles got an early scare from a hot-shooting Oakcrest team, but in the second half the Eagles pulled away for a 45-27 victory.
EHT is now 9-6 overall and fighting with the likes of Absegami (7-6), Holy Spirit (9-3), OLMA (7-6) and Hammonton (5-5) for the two at-large bids to the league tournament. The top two teams in each of the three CAL conferences earn automatic bids, along with two at-large selections to round out the eight-team field. Right now, teams are jockeying for position among the top two in the American, National and United conference races.
The Eagles, however, can’t look too far ahead. They know they have to take care of the business at hand each day, and they did just that against the Falcons, who nailed six 3-pointers in the first half and held a 15-14 lead after the first quarter.
“They came out and shot the ball well. They made some big shots, and we discussed how we had to get out and challenge some of those shots,” said Egg Harbor coach Adam Swift. “In the first quarter we were a little slow in our coverage, but kudos to (Oakcrest), they made some shots when they had to.”
“Our shots weren’t falling today, but the way we moved the ball — we were making great passes and we were unselfish today, and that helped us see the floor,” said Kierstyn Zinckgraf, one of just two seniors in EHT’s starting lineup. “The way we switch up our plays so much I think teams have a hard time defending us sometimes. And our defense catches people off guard because not many teams play against 1-3-1 and I think that helps us.”
EHT (9-6, 4-5 CAL United) jumped out to a 14-6 lead and looked to be well on its way to a blowout win, but Oakcrest (1-6, 0-4 CAL American) got some big threes from Bella Williamson and Mumu Scott to rally for a 15-14 lead heading into the second quarter. Scott was on fire in the first half, draining four 3-pointers to keep the Falcons in it.
The Eagles went on an 8-0 run to start the second quarter and took a 22-15 lead, but again the Falcons used long-range shooting to climb back into it. Scott hit another three, as Oakcrest scored all 18 of its first-half points on 3-pointers.
EHT got a bucket from Ava Kraybill just before halftime to extend its lead to 26-18, and in the third quarter the Eagles built their lead to 10 points, 32-22. Oakcrest cut the deficit to 32-24 on a driving layup by Scott early in the fourth quarter, but a few minutes later the Eagles put the game out of reach on a putback by Kara Wilson followed by a 3-pointer from Lyla Brown.
Senior Katrina Suarez said EHT wasn’t overlooking the Falcons at all heading into the game.
“We’ve been taught never to count anyone out, so we’re prepared for anything. It was just an effort thing. We have all the tools at our disposal, we just have to put 100 percent in,” she said. “(The difference lately) has just been the enthusiasm, and that all starts with the bench. It starts with practice and keeping our spirits up and everything else just follows.”
EHT has won four straight, but prior to that the Eagles had lost 5-of-6. Swift said he’s liking what he’s seeing out of his team, though, since a 57-51 loss to OLMA on Jan. 20.
“The girls have really just bought in and caught on to what we’re trying to do, both offensively and defensively. They are competing at such a high level and they are just playing so well together. We were just talking about this, throughout the year we’ve had six different leading scorers in games and that’s unheard of in high school girls basketball. Tonight, we moved the ball great, and even if the shots aren’t falling, everybody is getting good looks and everybody is sharing the ball. It makes us very difficult to defend. And, defensively, we’re just outworking people,” he said. “Right now it’s just drilling in what we’ve been working on. As we execute more and more we’re starting to see things. We do have a young team, so it’s all about getting kids reps. We’re relying on our seniors to make sure they keep their spirits up. It’s a long, grueling season; our freshman point guard (Brown) is getting physically beat up a little bit. But our seniors have been doing a great job supporting the younger kids while also contributing on the court. They’ve been that moral support and those leaders we’ve needed in the locker room.
“The first few games (of the season) we had some injuries and we had a couple people out sick, so we’re getting back into the groove of things and we’ve been gelling pretty well and bonding together as a team,” Zinckgraf said. “We move the ball well, and that helped us a lot today. When people were out, we still had some good momentum. We knew we had to work extremely hard because we knew we only had five or six people playing (in those early games), so we just had to keep up our energy back. Now, having everybody back, we have subs who can come in so we can get a quick break and get back into it.”
The current four-game hot streak has built the Eagles’ confidence, and they are looking forward to a February slate of games that features Lower Cape May, Collingswood, Wildwood Catholic, Hammonton and Vineland.
“Our biggest challenge is just going to be keeping it going, not getting tired out, and taking the next game and making that the most important game,” Suarez said.
Added Zinckgraf, “I think the next few games coming up we have a good chance of doing well. We have Wildwood Catholic coming up and that was a good game (earlier this season). I think with the momentum we have now we’ll do well the next few weeks.”
What’s next: EHT hosts Lower Cape May on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. Oakcrest travels to Bridgeton on Monday at 5:30 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays