By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
HAMMONTON — Unless Middle Township is playing Cape May Tech, Lower Cape May or Wildwood Catholic, the Panthers typically have a long bus ride to an away game.
That might explain the slow start the Panthers’ girls basketball team got off to on Monday afternoon when it fell behind host Hammonton 10-2 early on in a key Cape-Atlantic League United Conference matchup.
Once Middle Township got its legs steadied, however, it was a whole new ball game. After trailing by eight midway through the first quarter, the Panthers turned things completely around with a 17-2 run that gave them a 19-12 lead en route to a 54-45 victory.
Junior point guard Jada Elston led the way, racking up 20 first-half points on her way to a career-high 33 that included three 3-pointers and going 16-of-18 from the free-throw line. Middle also got some key buckets from the lone senior in its starting lineup, Kylie Graham, who scored two straight baskets with less than five minutes remaining to give the Panthers some breathing room. Hammonton had cut the deficit to 44-37 on an inside bucket by star forward Emma Peretti, but then Graham hit a jumper and scored off an inbounds play to push the lead back out to 48-37, and Middle never looked back.
The night belonged to Elston, however. She did it all for the Panthers, scoring in a variety of ways, from jumpers to layups to scoring off steals to hitting threes to converting her free throws. In the first quarter she had two field goals, including a 3-pointer, and went 2-for-2 from the line. In the second quarter she hit two more 3s and went 7-of-8 from the line; in the third quarter Elston hit two more field goals and two free throws, and in the fourth she hit a field goal and went 5-of-6 from the line.
“We love Jada, she’s great,” Graham said. “She’s quick and she always seems to be on. She has some off days, but they are very rare.”
Star guard Kate Herlihy — who was the youngest of three Herlihy sisters to play basketball at Middle Township — graduated last year, leaving a scoring void in the Panthers’ lineup. Elston has begun to fill that void, big time. In the last six games she’s scored at least 15 points — including 26 in a loss against Absegami and 19 each in wins over Ocean City and Lower Cape May. It’s no coincidence that in those six games the Panthers are 5-1.
“I feel like this year I’ve had to step up a lot and fill in that (scoring) role because we don’t have any more Herlihys. Kate was definitely a big part of our season last year, so now we’re just trying to find people who can step up,” Elston said. “I know I have to. I know I’m going to have some off days, but that I’ll also have really good days, like today, and I just have to contribute what I can for us to win.”
Hammonton (4-5, 3-4 CAL United) got off to a great start, jumping out to a 6-0 lead then stretching that lead to 10-2 on a steal and jumper by Shamaya Simola, but then Middle began to steady itself. A three from Elston and another bucket from the junior in transition pulled the Panthers to within 10-7, and later in the quarter Kiley Kozlowski hit a free throw to tie the game, 10-10.
Elston nailed a 3-pointer to start the second quarter, giving Middle a 15-12 lead. The Panthers never trailed again. Hammonton got within 21-16 with five minutes to go before halftime on a 3-pointer by point guard Giada Palmieri, but on the next trip down the floor Elston answered with a three of her own. Middle eventually took a 31-21 lead into halftime, with Elston accounting for 20 of those points.
“The first couple of minutes we had a couple of silly fouls and we just had to get over that. One of our bigs got three quick fouls, so we just had to continue on and try to work through that,” Graham said. “It’s definitely hard without the Herlihys, but we’re starting to figure it out and we’re getting some really good connections. We’re all starting to bond together, we’re all coming together very well.”
Middle got off to a slow start this season, dropping five of its first nine games, but has won four straight and the Panthers are keeping the pressure on CAL United-leading Wildwood Catholic (10-3, 7-0). Middle Township (8-5, 7-1) now sits just a half-game behind the Crusaders. Panthers coach John Leahy is well known for his teams playing their best basketball down the stretch, and this year’s roster is looking forward to February and a possible berth in the league tournament.
Elston said, however, that the Panthers simply have to focus on the next team on their schedule. In this case, Egg Harbor Township on Wednesday.
“I feel like we are definitely coming together as a team, we’re talking more, we’re bonding with one another, and just taking it day by day. Yes, we want to get into the CAL Tournament and get far in states, but we’re just taking it day by day. Right now, we’re going to go have a good practice tomorrow and get ready for EHT on Wednesday,” Elston said. “Coach Leahy’s expectations for us are very tough but that’s because he sees so much potential in all of us. He knows what we’re capable of doing. We know we have to figure things out. We have new kids filling into new roles and we have to figure it out, and we are. The pressure he puts on us helps us figure things out quickly. We can celebrate today because we won, but we just really have to get our minds ready for every single game. We’re not going to come out and play every game like we did today, so we have to come in with the mindset that we’re going to have to fight for all 32 minutes, every game.”
What’s next: Hammonton travels to Buena on Wednesday at 4 p.m. Middle Township travels to Egg Harbor Township on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays