By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
LINWOOD — The second season — the real season — for the Mainland Regional girls basketball team started tonight in the Mustangs’ home gym. The postseason is what the Mustangs live for. Their mantra is they want to keep playing until The Custard Hut in Somers Point reopens its doors the second weekend of March.
Mainland took the first step on its postseason journey with a businesslike attitude and made it clear from the first quarter that upstart Egg Harbor Township — the No. 8 seed making its Cape-Atlantic League Tournament debut — should put away any thoughts of a miracle upset. Mainland, the No. 1 seed in the league tourney, started the game on a 9-0 run and never looked back, cruising to a 61-31 victory that put the Mustangs into next week’s semifinal against No. 4 Atlantic City, a 63-39 winner over No. 5 Holy Spirit.
EHT simply had no answer on the inside for Mainland senior Kaitlyn Boggs, who racked up a game-high 22 points, including 12 in the first half when Mainland built a 33-14 lead. The Eagles’ 1-3-1 zone did little to slow down a Mustangs team that has now won four straight and 14 of its last 15 games. Its only loss during that stretch came against Paul VI, the No. 1 team in South Jersey.
“We worked a lot in practice with getting some plays against the 1-3-1 that would have me down low. My teammates really just provided me with some great passes today,” said Boggs, whose older sister, Gabby is a star forward at Albright College. “We talked about it in film session that they were a little bit smaller than me. They have a couple big girls, but they are a little bit smaller and we always want to take advantage of our size when we can.”
“She had 22 points tonight. She held girls off, she sealed so many girls perfectly, and we just threw the ball to her and she was wide open. She made a lot of easy layups, which is awesome,” said guard Camryn Dirkes, the only other senior in Mainland’s starting lineup. “This is the first time this season we saw a 1-3-1 (defense) and I thought we did a great job executing what we’ve been working on in practice. Things are starting to click, which is exactly what we want this late in the season.”
Mainland (21-2) also had a decided rebounding advantage in the first half, and throughout the game. It was all those second-chance possessions that helped the Mustangs get such a big lead by halftime.
“That’s something my dad and I have been working on since my freshman year,” Boggs said. “He’d be like, ‘OK, this game I want you to have at least 10 rebounds.’ It’s always about rebounds, and that’s something that empowers me to work harder, both offensively and defensively, is getting rebounds.”
EHT (15-8) clawed to within 13-8 as Amelia Zinckgraf scored a bucket at the buzzer to close the first quarter, but in the second quarter Boggs and Dirkes combined to score 15 points. Mainland also got five points in the quarter from sophomore Bella Mazur to race out to a 19-point halftime advantage. Dirkes nailed a 3-pointer from the left corner to make it 25-12 with 3:33 left before halftime, and that deficit was simply too much for the Eagles to overcome. Mainland extended its lead to 31-14 a few minutes later on consecutive inside buckets by Boggs.
The CAL Tournament is just the first step for the Stangs, as the South Jersey Group 3 tournament is also on the horizon, beginning March 1. Mainland also earned the No. 1 seed in that tournament.
“We just want to continue to do what we did tonight — executing our stuff, playing good defense and rebounding have been our focus all year long, and now it’s just starting to click,” Dirkes said. “(What we need to work on) varies depending on the game, but one thing is always rebounding. We always say if we can solidify that the offense will take care of itself. Especially on fast breaks, we’re a great team for running, but one thing we’re constantly trying to work on and get better at is rebounding.”
Boggs said the Mustangs are focused on their own goals, not what anyone outside the program might expect them to achieve this season.
“We’re taking it game-by-game. We never want to let anyone’s expectations of us get us too nervous or anxious,” she said. “In past years — like my sister (Gabby’s) senior year, we were undefeated but then lost in the end. It’s kind of like you’re thinking, ‘we don’t want to lose to this team or that team.’ We don’t want everyone else’s expectations getting in our heads. We’ve been very much staying focused on ourselves, staying focused on each game and taking it step-by-step. As long as we play our best and work our hardest we should be able to get far.”
What’s next: Mainland takes on Atlantic City in the CAL semifinals next week, time, date and location TBA.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays