By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
DEPTFORD — At the end of the third quarter of the Group 3 semifinals on Wednesday evening at Deptford High School, the Mainland Regional girls basketball team trailed Central Jersey Group 3 champion Ewing, 40-34. Senior forward Kaitlyn Boggs — perhaps the Mustangs’ most important player — had picked up her fourth foul with 24 seconds left in the third, and Mainland had blown a 29-28 lead it took at the start of the second half.
The South Jersey Group 3 champions’ dreams of playing for a state championship on Sunday at RWJBarnabas Arena in Toms River on Sunday looked as though they were slipping away. Sophomore point guard Kasey Bretones was on the brink of fouling out, and the Blue Devils were pounding the offensive glass, getting second-chance shots and threatening to break the game open.
Senior guard Camryn Dirkes has been talking about it in postgame interviews with members of the media throughout the postseason. These Mustangs trust every one of their teammates to do their part, and they know that any deficit can be overcome if they continue to play together and give it everything they have. That’s the kind of attitude that leads to a 27-2 record.
So, despite all the odds being stacked against them in the final eight minutes, the Mustangs found a way to rally, showing incredible moxie down the stretch and hitting just enough free throws to secure a 54-50 win. The loss was just the second of the season for the Blue Devils, and it means Mainland — the No. 15 team in the state according to the nj.com Top 20 poll — will take on No. 9 Sparta on Sunday for the Group 3 state championship. Mainland is seeking its second state title since the Kylee Watson-led Stangs won the program’s first in 2019. Sparta earned its berth by taking down Chatham, 48-46, on a buzzer-beating jumper by junior Ally Sweeney.
Mainland’s victory came down to the final seconds as well, as sophomore guard Bella Mazur hit 1-of-2 free throws with 3.5 seconds remaining to finally seal the win. Ewing got to within three, 53-50, with 6.4 seconds left on a driving layup by Te’Yala Delfosse, who scored nine of her 15 points in the second half.
Dirkes and Boggs — the only two seniors on Mainland’s roster — both came up huge in the fourth quarter. Boggs scored five of her 15 points in the quarter, grabbed a bunch of rebounds, and, most importantly, didn’t foul out. Dirkes scored five of her 13 points in the fourth quarter, hitting 3-of-4 from the free-throw line, and handled the ball so well that Ewing couldn’t get a steal and had to start fouling with more than a minute left on the clock. Dirkes hit both free-throw attempts with 25 seconds left that gave Mainland a 52-48 lead and made a comeback that much more difficult for the Blue Devils.
“I’ve been there a couple times this year in late-game situations when I have to sink one or two, and thankfully the last three went in. I have trust in my girls and they give me a little bit of extra confidence when I get (to the line). They know I can make it, and that makes me feel a million times better,” Dirkes said. “Once I’m on the court, I settle down. Leading up to (the game) I get a little nervous, but once we start going the only thing we care about is getting to the basket, scoring points and playing defense. I wasn’t necessarily stressed out, I knew we could pull it off. It’s just about having trust in all the girls, and that’s what we have.”
“It was a big mental game. I started to think too much about, oh, this could be my last game, I could foul out, and I didn’t want that to be on my mind, I just wanted to go out there and play my game and not let (the fouls) affect me mentally,” Boggs said. “I knew I could get in there and not foul out, I just had to stay out of my own head to do that. The games we’ve all been through this year, and the past four years Cam and I have gone through, have definitely prepared me for a game like this, and mentally — like we always say, stay ‘dialed in.’ We always bring that up, but it’s 100 percent true. I just have to keep my head in the game and not worry about the outside factors because I can’t control anything else. All I can control is my game and the team’s game, and we’ll pull through.
“Every single time I heard a whistle (in the fourth quarter) I would turn around and gasp,” she added. “I was like, ‘please, not me.’ It would have really hurt to foul out of that game, but thankfully I didn’t.”
Mainland (28-2) started the game on an 11-2 run but it quickly became apparent that Ewing (25-2) wasn’t going anywhere. The Blue Devils stormed back to tie the game, 13-13, and took a 28-27 lead into halftime. The second half featured more of the same — Mainland quickly went ahead, 31-28, but Ewing raced back to the lead, 34-31, on a 3-pointer from Rhian Stokes, who finished with a game-high 18 points. Stokes then nailed another three to push the lead to 37-31 and after Delfosse put back her own miss late in the third quarter, Ewing led, 39-32.
But the Mustangs closed the gap to 40-37 on a three from Ava Mazur, then shaved the deficit to 42-40 on a traditional three-point play from Boggs with 6:20 left. A driving layup from Dirkes tied the game at 42, and Mainland took the lead for good moments later when Bella Mazur dished to Boggs underneath for a 44-42 lead. Sophomore reserve forward Sydney Stokes — pressed into service throughout the second half due to Mainland’s foul trouble — drained a pair of free throws with 4:40 remaining to make it 46-42, then had a huge assist on a bucket by Bella Mazur that pushed Mainland’s lead to 48-42.
Ewing got to within 49-47 with 2:25 to play on a three-point play by Delfosse, and closed the gap to two points again with 30 seconds left when Delfosse hit 1-of-2 free throws, but Boggs rebounded the second shot and dished to Dirkes, who was fouled. Dirkes hit both of her free throws to make it 52-48 with just 25 ticks left.
“All game we knew we could do better on the defensive end. We’ve been saying all year that our defense really contributes to our offense,” Dirkes said. “We pulled together in the fourth quarter, thank God, we pulled it off, got ahead and really settled down on defense. I think they only got one or two offensive rebounds in that last stretch and that’s what I’m really proud of.”
“I thought the biggest thing in the first half was we weren’t rebounding the way we normally do. It wasn’t the expectation that we normally hold ourselves to. It was one of the keys, talking about it coming in, how that was going to keep them in the game, and it did,” said Mainland coach Scott Betson. “Camryn made a couple of big plays for us, which is what you expect out of your senior leader, and I thought the fourth quarter was our best defensive rebounding quarter. When we limited their second shots it took away their best offensive weapon.”
Boggs played one of her best games of the season, considering the competition, as she finished with 15 points, 12 boards, two assists, a blocked shot and a steal.
“When we write everything down before the game about what we need to do, boxing out was at the top of the list. Unfortunately, in the first half we weren’t doing it that well and they got a lot of offensive rebounds, but I think in the second half — especially in the fourth quarter — we picked that up and that really helped us pull through,” Boggs said.
“She’s awesome. She’s really important to us on both ends,” Betson said of Boggs. “Especially when their big (Joi Johnson/15 points, 10 rebounds) picked up her fourth foul and they took her out, we went right back to Kait and she got a couple buckets for us right in a row. She was obviously huge offensively, but she’s also out best defensive rebounder. For her to be able to manage (having four fouls) was huge, but I also said to the girls in the locker room, to be able to lean on the bench the way we did in really tough spots — come in for a minute here, two minutes there, play defense, rebound, run the offense — I was happy for them, too.”
Mainland won its only state championship in 2019 when it was led by Kylee Watson, now a standout player at the University of Oregon. But the Mustangs have proven they have plenty of talent in the post-Watson era. In the past two seasons — despite 2020 being covid-shortened and having no playoffs — the Mustangs are 40-4, and this year they won both the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament and South Jersey Group 3 titles.
“We have a lot of good players. I’m not taking any of the credit, we’re good because we have good players out on the floor. But I think at this point we’ve established that this program isn’t about any one player, it’s about all these players who come through, dedicate themselves to basketball and work really hard,” Betson said. “I think the goal every year is to win South Jersey. Once you get to these games, like you saw tonight, it’s a coin flip — a bounce here, a foul there, and we might be on the other end of this conversation. But we’ve established that these kids expect to compete, no matter who it is. No matter who we play against, we expect to compete.”
Dirkes and Boggs have an opportunity this weekend to do something that not many high school players can lay claim to — starting and ending their high school careers with a state championship.
“It means everything,” Dirkes said. “There were 14-point-something seconds left and someone went to the foul line, and I almost started crying — I had to pull myself together. That never happens to me. It’s a feeling I can’t describe in words. It’s amazing.”
“I’m ecstatic. We all just celebrated and I was crying in the locker room because it feels like it was such an emotional game, and such a mental game — it feels like we just won the whole thing because it was so emotional just to get this far. It feels so good,” Boggs added. “So many people aren’t playing anymore, some great schools and some great teams, and I’m just so thankful and proud of our team for how far we’ve gotten. We’re doing really well, and I really hope we can get after it on Sunday and get that state championship.”
What’s next: Mainland vs. Sparta on Sunday, time TBD, in the Group 3 state championship at Toms River North High School. Ewing’s season is complete.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays