By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Absegami girls basketball coach Bobby Lasko had the right plan in place with his team holding a 35-34 lead on visiting Mainland — the top team in the Cape-Atlantic League — on Wednesday night. The Braves tried to foul the Mustangs, put them on the line and have the last possession either tied or trailing by one.
The problem was, Mainland senior Camryn Dirkes has been wrecking opposing coaches plans in multiple sports throughout her high school career.
With Absegami trying to foul, Dirkes drove the lane with a little more than a minute to go, and did draw a foul — while also converting an off-balanced layup. The three-point play gave Mainland a 37-35 lead, and the Mustangs survived a big-time scare from the Braves, hanging on to win 38-35 and keep their stranglehold on first place in the CAL American race.
“In that last minute we really just wanted to focus on running our offense, executing and just getting at least a good shot,” Dirkes said. “We had trust in our offense and trust in each other to do that. That’s all we were thinking about, getting to the rim and making foul shots.”
“We always talk about rotating and help the helpers. We just wanted to try to get the ball to Cam so she could be the one shooting the foul shots at the end,” said sophomore point guard Kasey Bretones.
With 30 seconds left Bretones had a chance to seal the game but misfired on the front end of a 1-and-1, but she came up big on the other end of the floor with a steal. She was fouled and wasn’t successful again on the free throw, but once again her hustle changed the game, as she chased down her own rebound and fed Dirkes, who was fouled with nine seconds left. Dirkes hit 1-of-2 from the line to give Mainland a 38-35 lead, and on the other end freshman Reese Downey’s long 3-pointer rimmed out with less than a second left. There were still three-tenths of a second left for Absegami to rebound, but the Braves couldn’t get a shot off with so little time on the clock.
“We were just holding our breath at that point,” Bretones said about Downey launching the potential game-tying three. “We were trying to foul her and just didn’t get the call. We were just praying that shot didn’t go in, and we got lucky on the inbounds because there was really no time for them to get a shot off.”
Mainland (12-1, 5-0 CAL American) got a huge lift from sophomore guard Ava Mazur in the first half, as she nailed four 3-pointers to help the Mustangs take a 21-19 lead into the break. But in the third quarter Absegami (7-6, 2-3 CAL American) — which lost to Mainland by more than 30 points earlier this month — went toe-to-toe with the Stangs and entering the fourth quarter the game was tied, 30-30.
Downey nailed a big 3-pointer with four minutes remaining to pull Absegami within 34-33 after Mazur scored a couple of buckets to start the fourth quarter. Absegami then took a 35-34 lead with 3:08 remaining when Chi Chi Wokocha put back a missed shot under the basket. That’s how the score remained until Dirkes’ heroics with 1:21 remaining.
Mainland, winners of five straight since a loss to state power Manasquan, have some big tests coming up, including Shawnee, Atlantic City and Holy Spirit. The Stangs only beat Atlantic City by four points when they met up on Jan. 18. Dirkes said the whole team feels like they need to start playing better, despite being on a five-game winning streak and owning a 12-1 record.
“We go into every game and try to bring our best game no matter who the opponent is. Tonight, we won, but everyone on the locker room thought we should have done better,” she said. “That’s our mentality and that’s the standard we hold ourselves to. We just have to step up no matter who the opponent is. Ava did that tonight, she had 19 points and nobody else was even in double digits. That’s something we weren’t very happy about because we are a team that is deep and everyone on the court should be scoring.
Added Bretones, “we have to step it up in practice and dial in, like our motto is, and just keep going and pushing through. We’ll have some bad games here and there, we can’t play every game perfectly, but we just have to keep grinding.”
What’s next: Mainland hosts Bridgeton tonight at 5:30. Absegami is scheduled to host Hammonton on Saturday at 3 p.m., weather permitting.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays