Three straight losses between Dec. 26 and Jan. 4, coupled with the loss of point guard Camryn Dirkes to injury, had the Mainland Regional girls basketball team back at the .500 mark entering Cape-Atlantic League play in January, but this week the Mustangs have steadied the ship, it seems.

Coming off a 62-30 victory over Oakcrest on Tuesday, the defending Group 3 state champions kept things rolling with a dominating 56-34 win over visiting Absegami in Mainland’s home opener. And it was some of the key players from last year’s title-winning team who got the job done, including senior Kylee Watson, a University of Oregon commit, as well as fellow senior Madi Hafetz and sophomore forward Kaitlyn Boggs, the younger sister of current Albright College star Gabby Boggs.

The Mustangs (5-3, 2-0) got 16 points from Watson, 14 from Boggs and 13 from Hafetz — including four 3-pointers — to move a game ahead of Absegami (4-3, 1-1) in the Cape-Atlantic League National Conference standings. Both teams are dealing with significant injuries, as Dirkes is likely out for the season, and Absegami was without standout guard Jackie Fortis.

“We’re still adjusting a little bit. There are some things we’re trying to do that we need to continue to improve upon. I thought we did some sloppy things early but then we cleaned it up pretty well,” said Mainland coach Scott Betson. “They always play us tough and are usually in the right spots, which puts us in a bind, and they have some kids who can make some plays. But they are dealing with some injuries, too, so they are trying to adapt, like we are.”

Shaking off a slow start: Neither team was effective offensively at the start of the game, as it remained scoreless until nearly the three-minute mark. Watson finally broke the ice with a pair of free throws, then later in the quarter Boggs and Watson scored back-to-back buckets to give Mainland a 10-2 lead, and Hafetz drained the first of her threes with 10 seconds left to push the lead to 13-5.

“We definitely have had to adapt (without Dirkes), but we remain positive. That’s something that brought us down because we love Cam, even on a personal level, this would be our last time playing on the same court as her, so we’re missing out on that opportunity. But we remain positive and we’re confident in our abilities. I have the type of personality where I’m going to put pressure on myself no matter what because it’s my senior year and I want to have the best year I can, but on this team everyone is so supportive and we’re all aware that everyone has to step up,” Hafetz said. “Today, I missed a few shots but everyone kept telling me to keep shooting, so that shows that everyone has confidence in one another. If somebody misses a layup, we’re cheering them on and giving them more opportunities.”

Mainland got things rolling in the second quarter as Hafetz sandwiched a three from Lila Schoen with a pair of her own as the Mustangs’ lead swelled to 24-9. Defensively, the Mustangs gave Absegami fits and led 30-11 at halftime.

“We have to limit mistakes and just be aggressive. We’re tall (in the front court) but we get small pretty quickly, so we have to make sure we stay aggressive,” Hafetz said. “We were proud of our defense tonight. We communicated well and did what we practiced. The size difference (with Absegami) was tough but we’re scrappy. Alyssa (Turner) is doing great and Lila was great on defense tonight, so I have faith that we’re going to be fine this season.”

A solid 1-2 combination: Not many teams can handle the height in Mainland’s front court, as Watson (6-foot-4) and Boggs (6-1) gobble up rebounds and get second-chance points. That duo combined to score 18 of Mainland’s 30 first-half points. And Kareema Rex did a solid job coming off the bench whenever Watson or Boggs needed a breather.

“Kaitlyn and Kylee — we have two bigs and they work really work together. I think they’ll get better throughout the season,” Hafetz said.

“She needs to give us around eight to 12 points per game, just be in the right spots, catching strong and finishing around the rim, and I was proud of her tonight,” Betson said of Boggs. “I thought Kareema came off the bench in the same role and played really well tonight.”

Lockdown defense: Betson said he also liked the aggressiveness Hafetz showed on defense, and the ability of his starters to get the job done defensively will be a key factor as the Mustangs try to hold off teams like Absegami and Cedar Creek in the CAL National.

“Madi had a great game and played well on both ends. I thought she tied up a couple of plays on defense, which was impressive because that’s not something she’s normally aggressive with. She was smart and didn’t take fouls. She was a little hesitant shooting early, but she started to let it fly and it started going through the net for her,” Betson said. “We just have to continue to grow. We’re trying to put some things in that will make the transition game a little easier for us. I didn’t really like how we did that tonight. And we have to continue to get some of our younger guards more experience so they are ready for bigger games down the road.”

Pregame honor: Watson, who recently passed Angela Evans on Mainland’s all-time girls basketball scoring list, was honored with a basketball trophy by Mainland Athletic Director Mike Gatley. Watson and Gatley were joined at center court by the parents of Evans, who scored 1,629 points during her career from 1983-1987. Watson is less than 100 points away from becoming the school’s all-time basketball scoring leader, as Joseph “Skip” Castaldi, who played from 1961-1965, holds the record with 1,752 points.

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