By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
LINWOOD — There are many reasons why the University of Oregon chose to allocate a full scholarship offer to Mainland Regional senior Kylee Watson, and one of them is her elite passing ability. Watson regularly gets her name in the paper and in headlines on websites because she is the leading scorer for the Mustangs and one of the top recruits in the country, but often overlooked is her ability to pass the ball and put her teammates in positions to shine.
She did that all night long in a highly anticipated rematch with rival Ocean City on Friday night, and that led to a career night for sophomore forward Cadence Fitzgerald and one of the best games in the career of junior guard Lila Schoen. Fitzgerald scored a career-high 20 points and Schoen added 14 — with many of those 34 points coming as a direct result of a Watson pass — and Mainland avenged a loss a few weeks ago at the 97.3 ESPN FM Girls Basketball Shootout with a dominating 66-44 victory over the Red Raiders in front of a sold-out crowd at the Corral.
Mainland improved to 15-5 overall, but more importantly moved into a first-place tie with Ocean City atop the Cape-Atlantic League National Conference standings. Both teams are now 10-1 in conference play, and the Mustangs snapped Ocean City’s 15-game winning streak, a stretch of wins that began way back on Jan. 9. Mainland, the defending Group 3 state champion, lost starting point guard Camryn Dirkes to a leg injury in the first week of the season and struggled to a 3-3 start, but since then the Mustangs have gone 12-2, their only losses coming against Ocean City and defending Group 2 state champion Manchester.
“We came out strong and knew that it was our house, our game. We knew we didn’t have our best game (the last time), we were still getting used to playing without Camryn,” said Schoen, the younger sister of former Mustangs players Lexi and Georgia Schoen. “We put in some new plays and just kind of did it. We put in plays to get Kylee open on ball screens and that set up a lot of things. They always double- or triple-team her so we knew we could get open on back-door cuts, and we just kind of rolled with that.”
“That was so exciting. I’m still processing what happened. I got fed pass after pass from my teammates and we really executed our offensive sets well. We’ve been working on that in practice, ever since we lost to them last time,” Fitzgerald said. “We came in strong today, and determined. We had so much energy from the student section. That was a huge crowd for us. We came in strong, executed what we were told to do, and won by a lot.”
Watson the facilitator: Without Dirkes, Mainland is still relatively inexperienced at the guard position and that has forced coach Scott Betson to turn to Watson to assume a lot of the traditional point guard duties, particularly when opposing defenses try to press the Mustangs. Twice in the first quarter Watson brought the ball up and then found Schoen on the blocks after a back-door cut for an easy bucket, and the Mustangs led 14-12 after one.
That theme continued in the second quarter, with Watson then taking her defender off the dribble when the Red Raiders decided to sag back on Mainland players cutting along the baseline. A Watson drive to the basket with three minutes to go in the first half gave Mainland (15-5, 10-1) a 23-17 lead, and then fellow senior Madi Hafetz nailed a pair of threes to push the lead to 29-20. Watson went coast-to-coast late in the second quarter to push the lead to 11 points, 31-20, and Mainland went into halftime holding a 32-23 lead.
“We feed of each other’s energy. When Madi hits a three we all get hyped up,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitz-magic: After that 3-3 start, the Mustangs needed somebody who could step up and provide some scoring along with Watson and Hafetz, and it seems Betson has his answer in Fitzgerald, a 5-9 sophomore who brings a lot of athleticism to the table. She also plays on Mainland’s girls volleyball team in the fall. She’s had some solid games since she began getting more minutes in January, including a 12-point effort during Mainland’s 51-49 loss to Ocean City on Jan. 26, but really broke out in a big way during the rematch.
She had just eight points at halftime but came up with some big plays in the third quarter, and with 12 seconds left in the frame she completed a traditional 3-point play — off a feed from Watson, of course — that gave Mainland a commanding 45-34 lead. Another 3-point play off a press break early in the fourth gave the Mustangs a 50-35 lead with a little more than six minutes to go.
“She has really stepped up big time and we couldn’t have done it without her,” Schoen said of Fitzgerald. “You could see it (coming), she has confidence in herself and she knew if she worked at it she would eventually get a starting spot.”
“Definitely, this was a huge confidence boost for me. I just began starting, and I just started getting varsity playing time this year. I’m having so much fun and as the season has progressed I’ve gotten so much more confident. Finishing layups was a big thing for me today,” Fitzgerald said. “It was intimidating (early in the season), going from JV last year to getting a lot of minutes. But I’ve been getting a lot of practice in with my teammates and they have kept feeding me passes. It makes all the difference knowing my teammates have my back.”
Crunch time: This is the time of year when teams want to be playing well, and both the Mustangs and Red Raiders have been. Combined, they are 27-3 in their last 30 games, and Ocean City (16-6, 10-1) came into Friday’s action as one of the hottest teams in the state. Both are in line for top-four seeds in the upcoming CAL Tournament, and they are also the top two teams in the South Jersey Group 3 playoffs. Mainland will take on No. 16 Highland in the opening round of states on March 2, while second-seeded Ocean City takes on No. 15 Moorestown on the same night.
“Since I’ve been here there’s never been a time where we were up by 20 and could take (the starters) out (against Ocean City),” Schoen said. “It felt really good, we just have to keep going from here. I think we’re still growing and can only get better from here.
Added Fitzgerald, “This was definitely a confidence boost for us. We executed our man sets really well but we still need to work on our defense, especially our zone defense and watching where shooters are, talking and communicating.”
Stats: Mainland outscored Ocean City 21-10 in the final quarter to after taking a 45-34 lead after the third. … Watson finished with 17 points to go along with 20 from Fitzgerald, 14 from Schoen, eight from Hafetz and four from Kaitlyn Boggs. … senior guard Abbey Fenton led the Red Raiders with 18 points, off of which came on 3-pointers, as she nailed six of them.
What’s next: Ocean City hosts Cedar Creek on Tuesday at 6 p.m. Mainland travels to Lower Cape May on Tuesday at 7 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays