By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
LINWOOD — Back on Feb. 17, the Ocean City girls basketball team closed out its regular-season schedule with a lackluster 43-34 home loss against Red Bank Regional. First-year coach Stephanie Gaitley said at that moment, it was time to take the kid gloves off.
She ripped into her team, and apparently her fiery words made an impact, because the Red Raiders haven’t lost since.
On Tuesday afternoon Ocean City extended its winning streak to four games while snapping rival Mainland’s 20-game streak in a dominating 39-27 victory in the South Jersey Group 3 championship game. The Red Raiders are now just two wins away from a state championship. They’ll take on Ewing, the Central Jersey champion, on Thursday at 5 p.m. at Deptford High in the state Group 3 semifinals.
The Bunting Family Pharmacy Game of the Week was a typical Mainland vs. Ocean City affair in the first half, as the Red Raiders found themselves down 10-7 after the first quarter but worked to gain a 16-15 lead heading into halftime. But Ocean City came out on fire in the third quarter, outscoring the top-seeded Mustangs 19-5 to take a 35-20 lead and blow the game wide open. Mainland — which hadn’t lost a game since early January — never threatened after that.
“We challenged them a couple of weeks ago when we lost our last regular-season game, against Red Bank Regional. We were frustrated with them not playing together as a team, so we really laid into them, and they took a very serious approach. I said, ‘guys, we’re going to win it all, but we have to put the ‘we’ before the ‘me’ and you saw that progression throughout the tournament, and tonight. We have a great staff and a great team, and we don’t want it to end,” said Gaitley, a former standout player at Ocean City. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of this team. I played in three South Jersey championship games and lost in all three, so this is my first win. I’m unbelievably excited and I can’t say enough about this team. We’ve grown a lot, on and off the court.”
No. 2 Ocean City began its season by getting throttled, 51-35, at Mainland. In that game, the Stangs nailed six 3-pointers and went 7-of-9 from the free-throw line. The South Jersey championship was a whole different story, as Mainland hit just one 3-pointer and was held to just 10 points during the second and third quarters.
“This is so amazing. I’m so proud of my teammates, this win feels so great. Coming in here and beating our rivals makes it that much better. We knew it would be tough coming in here, but we knew if we played with heart we could do anything. We practiced all week, we’re all sore and tired, but we’re competitors,” said Ocean City senior point guard Avery Jackson. “Our coaches said that most times the third quarter is the deciding factor in the game, and every time we go into the locker room (at halftime) our coach tells us the score is 0-0 and the second half is a new game.”
“This is so amazing. As freshman we got to this same spot and we knew as seniors we wanted to make it come full circle. We were here the first game of the season and we were blown out, but we knew coming back here was a second chance for us to do what we know how to do, and what we knew we could accomplish. We had the mindset that it’s hard to beat a team three times in a season,” said senior forward Tori Vliet. “We knew we had to take shots, even if they weren’t falling at first we had to keep taking them. We had to make sure that when we drove to the basket we looked for the open person, because when they crash there is always someone open.”
Ocean City (23-6) started the third quarter on a 7-0 run, taking a 23-15 lead after Madelyn Adamson nailed a three in transition. Mainland (26-3) got a bucket from Kasey Bretones and a free throw from Sydney Stokes to cut the deficit to 23-18, but that’s as close as Mainland got the rest of the way. Jackson banked in a three from the left wing and after Vliet scored off an inbounds play, the Raiders were up by 10 points, 28-18. The lead swelled to 33-18 when Vliet capped off a 10-0 run with a 3-pointer.
“It takes a lot of confidence, but I was ready for the moment,” Vliet said. “We’ve been practicing all week on getting our shots up. Taking those shots, I was confident they were going to go in.”
Vliet scored 11 points and Adamson led the way with a game-high 17 points, as those two players alone outscored Mainland.
“Madelyn was awesome. She hit shots and controlled the game out there. She was everything for us today. I couldn’t be more proud to call her my friend, my teammate, my sister,” Jackson said. “And Tori, my best friend, she hit some big shots for us and really contributed a lot.”
“Different kids stepped up at different times. McKenna (Chisholm) came off the bench and did a good job, Naomi (Nnewihe) did her job — everybody contributed. This was a complete team win,” Gaitley said. “I think we’re peaking at the right time and playing our best basketball when it counts. These kids have been through a lot with covid and everything else they’ve been through. Our goal since the beginning of the year was to have fun — and it’s more fun when you win.”
Gaitley said after losing its final regular-season game, and getting bounced in the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament, Ocean City has responded the way she had hoped.
“The big thing I told them was that discipline and details are a big part of winning,” the coach said. “We had to talk a lot about being on time, being respectful, hitting those lines (during sprints), all those small things take care of the big things, and those small things took care of the big things tonight.”
A huge part of that has been the play of Jackson. Although she had just three points, she set the tone by continually attacking the basket and showing confidence in her teammates.
“Avery has been fantastic,” Gaitley said. “She carried us during our 15-game winning streak, and when she wasn’t able to carry us different people stepped up. Tonight, I thought Avery did a good job of attacking. She was the catalyst at the point guard position.”
Ocean City lost two of its first three games this season but then ripped off 14 straight wins. Since back-to-back losses to Middle Township and Mainland in late January, the Red Raiders have gone 8-2 and now are just two wins away from calling themselves state champs.
“I’m speechless. Just to see where we started the season on this floor to where we are now brings me unbelievable pride,” Gaitley said.
“There have been a lot of changes during my four years, but every time I get to put on this jersey it’s just a blessing and I feel so much pride,” Jackson said. “Coming in and winning this feels so good, ending my career this way, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Added Vliet, “this is the most rewarding game I’ve ever played in. We’ve been through so much, last season and this season. It’s so rewarding.”
What’s Next: Ocean City vs. Ewing in the state Group 3 semifinals, Thursday, 5 p.m. at Deptford High. Mainland’s season is complete.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays