By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — There was no logical reason to believe that eighth-seeded Mainland Regional could go into Egg Harbor Township and knock off the top-seeded Eagles on Friday night in the opening round of the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament. No eight seed had ever knocked off the No. 1 seed, in either the boys or girls tournament. And the Eagles had size and experience advantages all over the court.
But, hey, that’s why they play the games.
Mainland made league history by becoming the first No. 8 seed to advance out of the quarterfinal round, using a stifling defense and some gritty efforts from sophomore Cohen Cook and senior point guard Christian Rodgers to stun EHT, 50-38. The Mustangs advance to the semifinals, where they’ll take on St. Joseph Academy on Wednesday. The Wildcats took care of Millville in their quarterfinal matchup, winning 56-32.
The first half was a slog for Mainland — a team that came into the tournament just two games over .500 — as the Stangs got all 13 of their points from Cook and trailed 22-13 at the break. But the second half was a whole different story. Mainland held EHT in check and climbed back into it with some timely 3-pointers, and when Cook nailed a step-back jumper with 30 seconds left in the third quarter, Mainland trailed just 29-27.
The Stangs then held EHT scoreless for the first four minutes of the fourth quarter, and took the lead for good a minute into the final frame when Rodgers nailed a huge three from the right corner to put Mainland up, 30-29. The Stangs never trailed again.
“He came out and hit some great threes,” guard Tim Travagline said of Rodgers. “It was a great game by everybody, I love it. This means everything to us — an eight seed against a one seed, throughout the whole history of the CAL Tournament, no one has ever beaten the No. 1 seed as an eight seed, so it means a lot.”
“I just had to get in there and get it done. We started playing as a team in the second half, creating open shots for each other. It was just effort. We had great effort coming out of halftime,” said Cook, who finished with a game-high 21 points. “This is awesome. That’s what our coaches were talking about before the game, saying let’s make history because an eight seed has never beaten a one seed before.”
The Eagles (20-3) got to within 35-30 midway through the fourth quarter, but then Travagline nailed a three to push Mainland’s lead out to 38-30. From there the game went back-and-forth as EHT tried frantically to get to within a possession or two. The Eagles shaved the lead to 40-35, but then Rodgers put things on ice with another huge 3-pointer with 1:44 left that gave Mainland (13-10) a 43-35 lead.
“He’s doing great, he really does it all for us — he creates shots for everyone else, and he’s scoring some himself, and playing great on defense,” Cook said of Rodgers.
“We were really slow the first half but in the third quarter we came out firing, hit our shots and got back into the game,” Rodgers said. “We were just trying to run offense (on a few of those possessions), they left me open on the wing and I hit a few down. I knew once we got the lead we were going to take that lead and win the game.”
Mainland’s defensive game plan was to run a two-three matchup zone to try to contain EHT senior guard Carlos Lopez, the leading scorer in the Cape-Atlantic League who averages nearly 25 points per game. The plan worked to perfection, as Lopez was limited to just nine points. Forward Anthony Colon led EHT with 12 points, but he was limited to just four in the second half.
“We ran a matchup zone and tried to slow down Lopez, their leading scorer. We knew that we had to slow him down and we knew this game had to be in the 50s,” Rodgers said. “We knew it was possible. We played them twice before and it didn’t go our way, but we’ve had this game circled the past few days, ever since we found out we made the tournament.”
“It was crazy. We just started moving the ball around more,” said Travagline, who finished with 12 points, all in the second half. “Cohen had a great first half, and coach (Dan Williams) had a great speech at halftime. He was just saying that our offense was good, it was just slacking a little, but our defense was great, holding them to 22 points at half. This had to be a low-scoring game because they are such a great scoring team. It was tough, they are a really good team. It’s hard to stop them because they can shoot from anywhere.”
Mainland’s potential Cinderella story continues next week against St. Joseph Academy, a team similar to EHT in that the Wildcats are loaded with athletes and guys who can score the basketball. But now the young Mustangs — a team loaded with sophomores — are starting to believe anything is possible.
Said Rodgers, “they are all sophomores and I’m the only senior out here. It’s great that we have a lot of potential, but I think our time is now. We’re young, but I think we can get it done.”
What’s next: Mainland takes on No. 4 St. Joseph Academy on Wednesday in the CAL semifinals. Time and location TBA.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays