By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
OCEAN CITY — It may not have looked as though Ocean City girls basketball coach Paul Baruffi had just one day to prepare for University of Oregon recruit Kylee Watson and the rival Mainland Mustangs after the Red Raiders played Atlantic City on Friday night, but that’s probably because Baruffi and his staff likely started preparing for the finale of the 25th Annual 97.3 ESPN FM Girls Shootout weeks ago — if not before the season even began.
One of the most prepared coaches in South Jersey showed off his coaching genius again Sunday night, as the Red Raiders limited perhaps the best player in New Jersey to just five first-half points, and Ocean City did a masterful job of handling the ball and getting to the free-throw line in the final two minutes to seal a 51-49 victory that put the Raiders in the lead in the Cape-Atlantic League National Conference race.
Ocean City (9-5, 6-0) got a huge boost from sophomore guard Marin Panico, whose older sister, Paige, led the Red Raiders’ girls soccer team to a state championship this past fall. Panico shot 70 percent from the field, finished with a team-high 18 points, and nailed three 3-pointers to help Ocean City win its eighth straight game after a 1-5 start.
“I was going crazy. When the first shot went in, I was like, ‘all the other ones are going to go in.’ Nobody thought we were going to win. We just had to shut them down and be quick. (Baruffi) told us to get out quickly to the shooters. It was awesome, I’m so excited right now. This puts us in first place. I don’t think anybody thought (we could be in this position) since we struggled so much (early on), but we came out this weekend and were on fire,” she said. “I think we’re going to have a good ending to this season. We’re excited.”
“All the younger girls who didn’t really play much last year have really stepped up to the competition we’ve had,” said senior forward Emma Finnegan, who finished with eight points and 10 rebounds. “It took them a little bit of time to just get adjusted to the speed of the game, and in the beginning of the year we had that losing streak, but it was either we were going to sink or swim at that point. We’ve been turning things around ever since, gaining confidence, gaining momentum with each other and just trusting each other fully.”
Lock-down defense: Ocean City’s main priority — as it is with any team facing Mainland — was to limit Watson’s ability to gather scoring in big chunks. Watson still finished with a game-high 22 points, but was limited to just five in the first half as the Red Raiders took a 23-19 lead into halftime and led by as many as six points early in the second quarter.
Ocean City held the Mustangs (10-4, 5-1) to just 30 percent shooting (6-of-20) in the first half and out-rebounded Mainland 15-12. The Red Raiders also got 3-pointers from Finnegan, Abbey Fenton and Marlee Brestle in the opening half.
“The specific game plan was to go out on her and (Madi) Hafetz hard, and everyone else we would help on. I was inside the paint the entire game, and sometimes I’d be 10 feet off my girl, but we knew from watching so much film — our coaches watch hours and hours of film — that we can do that and it’s effective. In games like this, even though we had a 12-point lead, it’s the overall win that counts. It might not be pretty, but at the end of the day it’s a win,” Finnegan said. “We were on and off in a matchup zone, so at most points of the game they didn’t know what we were in. It was nice for us to go back and forth. Coach (Scott) Betson is a great coach, but I think Baruffi has that second sense because he’s been coaching against teams like this for so long.”
Coming back strong: Ocean City opened up a 12-point lead, 36-24, late in the third quarter after Panico nailed a three, but the Mustangs were able to shave the lead to 10 points heading into the fourth quarter. Mainland trailed, 44-38, with time winding under three minutes to play, but Watson scored on a nifty up-and-under layup along the baseline to pull Mainland within four points, then scored again in the paint with 1:45 remaining to close the gap to 44-42.
But, as it had all game, Ocean City came up with an answer to Mainland’s run. Fenton drilled a three from the left corner with 1:24 left to push the Red Raiders’ lead to 47-42. Mainland answered with a bucket from sophomore Cadence Fitzgerald to make it 47-44 with 38 seconds left, but Finnegan and Delaney Lappin went 3-for-4 from the line in the final 27 seconds to give Ocean City a 50-46 lead. Watson nailed a three with about two seconds left for the final margin.
“I think in order for a team to work all together you have to be able to rebound, you have to be able to shoot, be able to box out, be able to get up the court and press — and I think we have people who can do all those things. It’s really nice to have that,” Finengan said. “I’ve known Kylee since I was in fourth grade. We’re really good friends, we hang out outside of the season, so we’re not just basketball rivals. But to go up against her — it’s one of those things that really puts it into perspective. She’s going to the next level with Oregon, and in order to succeed against her you really have to give it your all. She’s not the whole team, obviously the rest of her team helps her out, but to get this win tonight really boosts our confidence that we can shut anyone down if we all work together.”
Stats: Watson finished with 22 points, six rebounds, four assists and two blocks for Mainland, and Fitzgerald had another big night, adding 12 points and three steals. Kaitlyn Boggs, another sophomore, finished with nine points and three rebounds. For Ocean City, Fenton finished with 13 points, including three of the Red Raiders’ seven 3-pointers, and Brestle added seven points, six assists, two rebounds and two steals.
Highlights from other games: Holy Spirit got 19 points from Kira Murray, a double-double from Jules Lynch (13 points, 10 rebounds) and 10 points from Sophia Pasquale to beat EHT 51-46 in overtime … Westampton Tech nipped Atlantic City, 50-49. The Vikings got 13 points and 10 rebounds from Quanirah Montague and nine points, seven rebounds and three steals from Madison Brestle.
Shootout scores: Holy Spirit 51, EHT 46 (OT); Howell 58, Vineland 56; Gloucester Catholic 59, ACIT 50; Wildwood 48, OLMA 38; Westampton Tech 50, Atlantic City 49 (OT); Hammonton 63, Cedar Creek 46; Moorestown Friends 83, Ewing 43; Absegami 55, Camden Tech 14; Wildwood Catholic 58, Red Bank 48.
What’s next: Ocean City hosts Wildwood on Wednesday at 4 p.m. Mainland hosts Oakcrest on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays