Middle Township Downs Oakcrest in Overtime Thriller
Some losses are tougher to take than others. Then again, some wins mean a little bit more, especially when a team has to dig deep and come up with contributions all over the floor to get the ‘W.’
Oakcrest came into Friday night’s matchup against visiting Middle Township off the high of beating Lower Cape May, 49-48, with a buzzer-beater on Thursday night. The win was the first for the Falcons, who began the season with five straight losses, and might have been the kind of victory that jumpstarted a team looking for a spark, had it not been for a gritty effort down the stretch from Middle.
The Panthers have had their own share of bad luck, losing four straight games entering Friday night and having lost three games this season by five points or less under “new” coach Tom Feraco, a Middle Township legend who is back on the bench this year. But against Oakcrest, the Panthers survived a scare late in regulation, forced overtime, and got a huge contribution from junior guard Charlie McNeal to score a 50-45 overtime win over the Falcons that boosted Middle’s record to 3-6 overall.
McNeal scored all 12 of his points in the second half and overtime, complimenting a 17-point, 16-rebound effort from forward Miles Sapp, as the Panthers outscored Oakcrest 7-2 in the extra four minutes.
“That’s what we needed. We needed somebody to give us that momentum spark, and (Charlie) really did help us,” said senior guard Matt Marino.
“My coach dug into me. He said we had to find more energy and that we had to find a leader,” McNeal said. “We weren’t playing good enough defense and we had to move the ball and find the open person. They told me I had to hit the gaps more, move the ball and take the open shots, so I just started taking the open shots and being more aggressive on defense.”
Taking their best shot: The game was close throughout the first half, as Oakcrest (1-6) went into the locker room holding a 26-22 lead, but the Falcons played well early in the third quarter and extended their lead to 34-22. Just as the Panthers were on the verge of getting blown out, the threes started raining down.
Middle went on a 11-0 run — thanks to 3-pointers from McNeal, Jeremiah Camacho and Marino — to close the gap to 34-31, and that was the turning point for the Panthers.
“I knew they were going to come to play because they were coming off that win over Lower, so I knew they were going to bring the energy. We knew it was going to be a tough one, but I’m glad we were able to pull it off,” Marino said. “Those threes were huge. These rims were hard to shoot on, and you can see we didn’t make a lot of shots, and their pressure was getting to us, but coach told us to relax at halftime and I think that helped us.”
“We called a timeout and coach was yelling at us, he really dug into us,” McNeal explained. “We had to move the ball around, I stuck a three, Jeremiah Camacho stuck a three and then Matt stuck a three, and that got us started. It was tough, they were fast, so we had to stay poised and stay organized on offense and keep our heads in the game.”
Marino finished off an 11-0 run with a driving layup that cut the Falcons’ lead down to 34-33, and heading into the fourth quarter Oakcrest led just 38-35. Middle tied the game on a three from McNeal early in the fourth then went ahead, 40-38, on a pair of McNeal free throws.
From there, the game see-sawed back and forth, with each team squandering chances in the final two minutes with turnovers and offensive fouls.
Wild finish to regulation: With less than 90 seconds to play, Marino hoisted up a three that was off the mark, but Jahlil Kearney was there for the tip-in, knotting the score, 41-41. Kearney then scored on a driving layup to give Oakcrest a 43-41 lead with 50 seconds left, but McNeal calmly drained a pair of free throws with 27 seconds left to tie the score at 43-all. Oakcrest then committed an offensive foul on what looked like its last possession, but Middle gave the ball back on a bad pass with seven seconds remaining. Oakcrest, however, couldn’t find a way to beat the buzzer again this time, and the game went into overtime.
Sapp was huge all night for the Panthers, as he scored 11 points in the first quarter, and although he had just two points in the second half and overtime, he grabbed some key rebounds down the stretch.
“He’s tight. He’s real quiet, but he’s tough,” McNeal said of Sapp. “He doesn’t play quiet at all. He’s strong and reliable.”
Back to work: The Panthers won’t have a lot of time to revel in this victory, as they have five games in the next 14 days, including tough matchups against Pleasantville, Cape May Tech and Mainland.
“I think we still have a lot to learn. It was an ugly win, but we’ll learn a lot from it,” Marino said. “We just have to keep improving the rest of this season and we’ll be fine.”
“This is our third win, and coming off four losses in a row, I feel like we’re about to go on a winning streak, hopefully. Monday, we have Pleasantville, so hopefully we can catch a win,” McNeal said. “Our last loss, against St. Joe (53-49 on Wednesday), was a big turnaround because we played as a team. Even though we lost, we played a whole 32 minutes, and tonight we were able to put it all together, including in overtime.”
Stats: Marino finished with 11 points for Middle, including hitting two of the Panthers’ six 3-pointers. Nissim Respes led the way for Oakcrest with 12 points while Kearney scored nine and Tavion Gray and Alijah Reaves added seven apiece.
What’s next: Middle Township travels to Pleasantville on Monday at 7 p.m. Oakcrest travels to Cedar Creek on Monday at 5:30 p.m.