By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
LINWOOD — Apparently, as long as Kylee Watson puts on a Mainland Regional basketball uniform, she’ll continue to rack up awards and reach milestones. One of the most — if not THE most — storied girls basketball careers in Cape-Atlantic League history will come to an end either next week or the week after, but it’s not over yet, as Watson scored a game-high 17 points to lead her Mustangs past Absegami and into the South Jersey Group 3 championship game.
The defending Group 3 state champion Mustangs dominated right from the start, even if it took a while to get some breathing room against the Braves, who had won two games in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion to reach the sectional semis. Mainland led just 5-0 after the first quarter, but once Watson began to assert herself on the offensive end, the Mustangs cruised to a 41-12 victory. The top-seeded Mustangs will host rival and second-seeded Ocean City, a 53-42 winner over Toms River East, on Tuesday in the championship game.
Earlier on Friday, Watson was named the Gatorade Player of the Year for New Jersey girls basketball, and before the game she was honored for becoming the first girls player in Mainland history to reach 1,000 rebounds. Already the school’s all-time leading scorer, Watson also received the “Miss NJ” award for girls basketball by GThing Basketball, and early in the second quarter she nailed the second of two free-throw attempts to reach 2,000 career points.
“It’s impressive. A 2,000-point scorer, we haven’t seen that anywhere in awhile — I think (Lower Cape May’s) Lauren Holden was the last one,” said Mainland coach Scott Betson. “And 1,000 rebounds is something we’ve never had here, and the Gatorade Player of the Year kind of speaks for itself. I’ve said it a million times, she deserves all the accolades. She’s the hardest working kid out there, and I’m happy for her whenever she gets them.”
In typical Watson fashion, she wanted to talk more about the game and her teammates than awards once the victory was secured.
“It was definitely a very exciting day because of all that stuff, but most of my focus was on the game tonight and just being able to win this and move on to the next one. The individual accomplishments are great and I thank all my teammates, coaches and everyone who has been a part of my life for all of that,” she said. “To be able to be blessed as the Gatorade Player of the Year is awesome. But for right now, we’re just really focused on winning Tuesday, and so is (Ocean City), so we have to come out with the same mindset and just give it our all every second we’re out on the court.”
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Sluggish start: The game slowed to a crawl early, as fourth-seeded Absegami (17-11) missed all of its field goal attempts in the first quarter while Mainland scored just one bucket from the floor and led just 5-0 after eight minutes. The game was briefly halted early in the second quarter when Watson scored her 2,000th point, and Mainland (21-6) — which has had six games in the last 12 days — was content with sitting back in a zone defense and slowing the pace down to save its legs.
Absegami sophomore Jackie Fortis returned to the lineup for the state playoffs after missing the entire season with a right thumb injury, and Betson said the Mustangs didn’t want her to get going early in the game. In fact, they held her scoreless, as junior Arielle Schafer and senior Gianna Hafner accounted for all of the Braves’ points, scoring six apiece.
“We were a little soppy and amped up (in the first half). We airmailed a couple of passes that could have been layups, but once we settled down — in the fourth quarter, especially — we made all the passes, we made all the catches and made all the layups,” Betson said. “With Jackie coming back they had some length on us in some spots, so we were a little uncomfortable using our man-to-man matchups. And, we’ve been through a bit of a grind with the CAL playoffs and some tough draws (in sectionals). These teams are no joke, Winslow was right there with us. I didn’t want to run into a thing where we were just running in mud out there and giving up extra opportunities for putbacks because of their size. We thought we’d try to force them to shoot jump shots and they didn’t shoot the ball particularly well tonight. That was to our advantage.”
The Mustangs go things going offensively halfway through the second quarter and finished on a 6-0 run to take a 19-4 lead into halftime.
“We knew we weren’t going to get too many (scoring) opportunities,” Watson said. “We knew we had to have a primary focus on defense, not only for this game, but moving forward. Once again, controlling what we can control, not turning the ball over, not letting people drive by us and grabbing rebounds.”
Getting refocused: After impressive wins over Middle Township and Wildwood Catholic in the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament, Mainland was humbled with a loss to Atlantic City in the championship game. The Mustangs turned the ball over more than 30 times in that game, but have gotten back on track in the state playoffs, beating Highland, Winslow and Absegami to reach the title game.
“The CAL Final wasn’t our best showing — we had 20 turnovers in the first half — so we talked about controlling what we can control today, and we’ll be fine. We were focused on breaking the press and just settling down and not letting the pressure get to us. We’re really going to need that going forward,” Watson said. “I think we were on a bit of a high horse after beating Middle and Wildwood Catholic (in the CAL Tournament), but after the Atlantic City loss, our self confidence dropped a little bit. Tonight, we had to get that back and remember we can do this and we are a good team if we play together and focus on one thing, and that’s just playing for each other.”
What’s next: Mainland hosts Ocean City on Tuesday in the South Jersey Group 3 championship game, time TBD.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays