By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
MILLVILLE — After eighth-seeded Mainland Regional knocked off the No. 1 seed in the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament, Egg Harbor Township, some may have felt the Mustangs were playing with house money. After all, no No. 8 seed had ever beaten a No. 1 seed since the tournament expanded in 2013, so whatever happened after that was gravy.
Forget house money. The Stangs have some spending money, and they are treating this tournament like a weekend in Vegas.
The Cinderella darlings pulled off another eye-opening upset on Wednesday night at Millville High, knocking off No. 4 St. Joseph Academy, 45-35, and punching their ticket into the championship game for the first time in program history. The Stangs will take on No. 2 St. Augustine Prep at noon on Saturday at Absegami High School. Prep shocked Holy Spirit with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from half court by Semaj Bethea that sealed a 42-40 win by the Hermits.
There was no such drama in the nightcap, however, as Mainland pulled away in the last few minutes and sealed the win from the free-throw line — something that gave the Mustangs fits in the first half of the season.
“That’s a recent phenomenon because as a team, two weeks ago we were shooting 54 percent from the free-throw line. I don’t know what clicked, maybe it was just the right guys going to the line at the right time,” said Mainland coach Dan Williams, who during his high school career scored a career-high 46 points in a game against St. Joseph. “This is huge. It’s fun being the underdog. The thing that gave us the greatest sense of pride is that we’re the only public school (in the semis). Everyone thought for sure that EHT would be the public school that would be there. It’s just guys from the three towns (Somers Point, Linwood, Northfield) going up and down the bike path, deciding to slap on the jersey of their school instead of forming an all-star team. And the guys talk about that a lot. We’re not this AAU program that some of these other places that draw from everywhere are. So let’s go show them was these three little towns can do.”
Mainland certainly has shown the CAL what it can do by playing unselfish basketball and having each player do what he can in his role. Sophomore Cohen Cook has to be the main scorer, and he did that, racking up 21 points to lead all scorers. Point guard Christian Rodgers is the only senior and he did an outstanding job handling the ball, committing just three turnovers despite facing a ton of pressure from St. Joe in the second half. And sophomore Jamie Tyson did a solid job of defending the interior against St. Joe star Ja’son Prevard, who was held to 13 points.
“We had to control him, look where he is going all the time, try to force him left and just be wherever he’s at because he’s a really good player. We just had to come out in the second half and do more rebounding and be stronger (in the paint),” Tyson said. “We believe, so we’ve come out here and proven a lot of people wrong. We’ve been practicing together and believing in each other, and now we’re coming out here and making history. We knew after that first game (against EHT) that we could compete with anyone even though we’re young. This has been really fun. It’s been a fun ride.”
“The kids are just tough. They are really, really tough. It would have hurt to not get in (the tournament), but having gotten in, I think Tyson and Cook have set the tone. Cook may be, pound-for-pound, at this moment, the toughest player there is in this league. And Christian has been a big difference, our senior running the show. He’s been knocking down shots for us and that’s been huge,” Williams said. “Knocking down threes has really been the difference, that and we settled into a matchup 2-3 zone. Earlier we were mixing between a three-quarter-court press, are we a man-to-man team, are we like that middle school sit-back-and-pack-it-in 2-3 zone. We’ve stretched that 2-3 out a little bit and see how it goes.”
St. Joseph Academy (17-7) was down 25-19 at halftime, but came out strong in the second half, going on an 8-2 blitz to start the third quarter that tied the game at 27. Mainland answered with a run early in the fourth quarter and took a 34-30 lead on a driving layup by Stephen Ordille, but St. Joe answered when Jameer Cartagena scored an acrobatic driving layup of his own, cutting the deficit to 34-32.
That’s as close as the Wildcats got, though, as Mainland (14-10) began to pull away in the final four minutes. Rodgers scored on a layup down the lane to make it 38-34, and after a pair of free throws from Cook and an inside bucket by Tyson, the Mustangs led, 42-34, with just 1:13 remaining. Cook added three points in the final 40 seconds to seal the victory.
“We knew they were going to come out with energy (in the second half). We were up by six at the half so we knew they were going to come with some type of pressure, we knew we just had to move the ball, and that’s what we did,” Rodgers said. “They brought three to me so I just had to distribute the ball to the middle, and we got layups.”
“I wish there was some magic formula, but we just weren’t getting into spots,” Williams said. “They came out and pressed us and they crushed us on the boards. They crushed us on the boards in the first half, too, but we weren’t getting in spots. Cohen was going down the sideline instead of the middle, and when we get it to him in the middle, good things happen. We called a timeout and just got back to real old school press break … we happened to hit a couple of shots when they were missing a couple, and it just worked out.
“That’s the thing about them being young, a little bit of momentum snowballs all of a sudden.”
The Stangs now hope the clock doesn’t strike midnight before noon on Saturday. They want this Cinderella run to end with a championship in hand.
“It feels amazing. I’m at a loss for words right now,” Rodgers said. “Just getting into the tournament, there was an argument between Hammonton and ACIT, but we got in and showed up and now we’re in the championship. I’m so happy. This is the first time in program history on the boys side that we made it to the championship, and we’re not done. I think we can win the whole thing.”
What’s next: No. 8 Mainland vs. No. 2 St. Augustine Prep, CAL Tournament championship at noon on Saturday at Absegami High School.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays