By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
MAYS LANDING — One of Lauren Baxter’s goals coming into the COVID-shortened 2021 high school basketball season was to make sure she graduated with at least one win over Atlantic County Institute of Technology. The senior point guard and four-year starter for coach Adam Swift’s squad had never been able to get past the RedHawks during her career.
In fact, no Eagles player had ever walked off the court against ACIT with a win. Since ACIT began playing varsity basketball in 2012-2013, the RedHawks had gone 8-0 against EHT.
That changed on Friday night.
Baxter scored 10 points and helped her Eagles withstand a furious comeback attempt by the host RedHawks, as EHT escaped with a 48-38 road victory to move a game above .500, at 3-2. The Eagles got a big lift from guard Yani Davis, who led the team with 14 points, including six in the final minute of the game after ACIT had shaved the lead all the way down to 42-36. EHT also got a combined 12 points from the Zinckgraf sisters, Amelia and Kierstyn.
“We knew coming into this game who we had to get and who we had to play real hard,” Baxter said, referring to ACIT junior forwards Grace Speer and Cea’anai Jackson. “We haven’t beaten this team in a long time so this was a big game for us. We really wanted to win this game. In the beginning of the year everyone was playing and we were out because of COVID, or snow days, but we were able to bounce back. That’s what I love about our team, we can adjust to any situation.
“It feels really good to beat them,” she added. “They beat us twice (in previous years) on buzzer-beaters, so it felt really nice to win. That was one of my main goals coming into my last season, to finally beat ACIT.”
Aside from Speer and Jackson, nobody in coach Jackie Siscone’s starting five had any varsity experience prior to this season, and the RedHawks start a freshman at point guard in Lynn McLaughlin. EHT’s plan was to neutralize Speer and Jackson, and that plan worked to perfection early on as the Eagles went on a 14-0 run to start the second quarter, turning a 9-7 lead into a 23-7 advantage before ACIT’s Jada Rojas stopped the bleeding with a short jumper with five minutes to go before halftime.
“I think that was just a lot of energy,” Swift said of the run. “This group is a phenomenal group. After today, we’re holding teams under 40 points per game. We play really hard, get a lot of steals, get hands on passes, and tonight we converted some of the easier opportunities. Shots haven’t been falling our way, but tonight it all kind of came together.”
Things got worse for the RedHawks (2-4, 2-4 Cape-Atlantic League North) in the third as EHT (3-2, 3-2 CAL North) got a pair of jumpers from Baxter to start the second half before an inside bucket from Amelia Zinckgraf pushed the Eagles’ lead to 20 points, 36-16. But ACIT got a huge spark from McLaughlin, who hit a pair of threes to bring the Hawks within 38-24. She then capped the quarter with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from half court that shaved the lead down to 42-31.
“That half-court shot was huge, it turned the momentum a little bit and gave us some confidence and the spark that we needed. And I think the leadership of Grace Speer and Jackson, just their presence on the court — they are serving as role models/coaches on the court. They are teaching as they are playing, which is a credit to both of them. They definitely helped in giving the other kids confidence, like, ‘hey, we’ve been here before.’ We beat Holy Spirit and we were down by 16 at half. We need to learn the philosophy of playing to win and not playing not to lose — that’s the shift that we’re trying to tackle right now,” Siscone said. “We dug ourselves a 20-point hole but fought our way back and cut it to six. We have kids out there with zero varsity experience, so it’s been a learning curve; a freshman point guard who is being throw to the wolves but is doing a great job. I was proud — we could have folded, but instead we fought back. A couple shots we don’t finish and a couple bad passes, but I was proud of our fight. It’s tough because given this whole COVID situation we had a lot of girls (opt out), which I understand. We’re just trying to get better every day, that’s the biggest goal, just keep improving.”
ACIT was able to get within six points, 42-35, on a putback by Daphnee Gonzalez-Mora with 4:45 remaining, but just couldn’t get the buckets it needed down the stretch to put more pressure on the Eagles.
“We lost to ‘Gami by three, to Cedar Creek by three, to Oakcrest by nine and tonight by 10, but I don’t think that was a true indication of (how close it was) at the end of the game,” Siscone said. “We’re right there, we’re just putting the pieces of the puzzle together.”
EHT had a plan coming into slow down Jackson and Speer, and for the most part the Eagles’ defensive strategy worked. The senior duo combined for 14 points but the Eagles limited them to just two in the second half.
“We played a box-and-one; we knew we had to shut down Grace and I think we did a really good job with that,” Baxter said. “My fellow senior and my cousin, Mikki (Pomatto), she played really well. She had a couple fouls in the beginning of the game but she was able to get back in and play really well, as well as Kara (Wilson), she played well against Grace, too.”
“We came in knowing we had to stop Speer and Jackson. That was the goal of our defense, we set up a box-and-one to guard Speer on the perimeter man-to-man, and we actually had our box kind of sandwich Jackson so they couldn’t get the ball inside,” Swift added. “(McLaughlin) hit some shots and they got some open looks, so we changed up our defense from there. We were willing to live on (Speer and Jackson) not beating us. When McLaughlin started hitting shots we had to get out of that and change up our defense and start guarding her. The girls did a nice job adjusting on the fly.”
Swift credited the experience of Baxter with helping the Eagles withstand ACIT’s furious second-half comeback attempt. He was quick to add, however, that his post players also did their job against one of the most challenging duos in the league.
“Having a four-year starter in the back court obviously is huge. She has that calming effect with everybody. She’s also somebody who we’re confident in as coaches. We know we have the ball-handling aspect of it done, now let’s focus on the rest. But I think all of the girls really did a nice job. We have a quality mix of seniors and underclassmen so we do have experience with the other girls as well,” Swift said. “Our girls definitely battled. We wanted to get them in position to battle, then let them battle. Our post players are undersized but they really did battle and rebound well, so we’re very happy with everything, whether it was leadership from our seniors, whether it was Baxter calming us down late in the game or our bigs really battling their bigs. That was our whole thing this week, we have to keep them off the boards and not give them easy looks.
Any way you slice it, the win was big for EHT, which finally has the ACIT monkey off its back.
“These kids work really hard and they need to see some of that work pay off. It was nice to bounce back (after a 39-23 loss to Absegami on Tuesday) and they saw that if they continue to do things, they’ll get rewarded,” Swift said. “We held Absegami under 40 points, our shots just weren’t falling. We kept emphasizing that the shots will go in, and if you keep defending we’ll start winning when the shots start going in. It’s a testament to them that they’ve been able to stick with everything we taught them. They came out and executed everything we asked of them.”
Baxter said she and her teammates are just thrilled to get a chance to play as many games as possible this season.
“That’s our philosophy — every game we play could be our last, so we want to play hard and have fun,” she said. “Of course we want to win, but we want to come out here and enjoy the last time we get to play basketball together.”
What’s next: Egg Harbor Township hosts Oakcrest on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. ACIT travels to Pleasantville on Tuesday at 4 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays