CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — The Mainland Regional girls basketball team did everything right in its effort to mount a comeback from 12 points down on Friday night against host Middle Township. The Mustangs chipped away, got the ball to their best scorers, played aggressive defense and got steals. They eventually whittled the Panthers’ lead down to just two points — 45-43 with 37 seconds left to play.

But Middle has perhaps the best player in the Cape-Atlantic League this season in senior guard Kate Herlihy, and she was determined to see her Panthers through an undefeated week that featured a gauntlet of Wildwood Catholic, Ocean City and Mainland — all perennial contenders for the league championship. Herlihy hit a free throw with 35 seconds left to put Middle up by three, then scored a steal on Mainland’s next possession and hit two more free throws. She eventually iced a 49-43 victory by hitting 1-of-2 from the line with three seconds left.

Mainland doesn’t have All-American Kylee Watson anymore, as she’s now a freshman at the University of Oregon, but the Mustangs still got off to a 2-0 start this season, having beaten Ocean City and Cape May Tech. A win would have put Mainland (2-1, 2-1 Cape-Atlantic League East) in first place in the division, but now the Stangs and everyone else is chasing Middle Township (4-0, 4-0 CAL East). The Panthers have started the season with wins over Lower Cape May, Wildwood Catholic, Ocean City and Mainland — teams that were a combined 69-41 last year. The three teams they beat this week all had more than 20 wins a year ago.

“It was such a good win, especially after such a long week of playing really hard teams, and then playing this really good team, it just felt good to bring it all together,” Herlihy said. “Even though they don’t have Kylee anymore, they are still so good. It’s nice to have a lot of games, but it’s also really tiring. We’re all just trying to be safe, staying home and staying away from everyone as much as we can so we can have this season.”

The game was close throughout the first half before Middle got a little bit of separation by going on a 7-0 run to close out the first half with a 26-17 lead. Herlihy had a hand in all three baskets, as she started the run by nailing a 3-pointer, she then fed Jada Elston in transition to make it 24-17, and closed out the run with a steal and a layup.

“For my money, Kate is the best player in South Jersey right now. No offense to (Wildwood Catholic’s) Marianna Papazoglou, Marianna is terrific, but (Kate) is just a phenomenal athlete and she can do things that not many kids can do,” said Mainland coach Scott Betson. “We’re a whole different team now without Kylee, but I don’t think (losing) tonight had anything to do with being a team without Kylee. I thought we showed our youth a little bit at times tonight, but we don’t take anything from we don’t have Kylee anymore, we expect to win games like this.”

Mainland trailed 38-26 late in the third quarter after Middle’s Brianna Robinson nailed a three from the left corner, and that prompted Betson to call a timeout. The strategy paid off, as the Stangs went on a 9-1 run, getting some big buckets from junior forward Kaitlyn Boggs and a 3-pointer from senior guard Lila Schoen to shave the deficit down to 39-35.

Middle coach John Leahy countered with a timeout of his own, and out of the timeout Herlihy did what she does best, driving the lane and pulling up for a short jumper that pushed the Panthers’ lead to 41-35. The Panthers went on a little run to extend the lead to 45-36, but again Mainland came roaring back, getting a driving layup from junior point guard Camryn Dirkes and then a traditional 3-point play from Boggs to climb to within 45-43 with 37 seconds left. But again it was Herlihy coming through, as she scored the final four points of the game to seal the victory.

“I wasn’t really looking up at the scoreboard, but my coach was getting really intense,” Herlihy said. “We all just had to settle down. At one point we were going so fast, on defense and offense, so we just had to chill out, take it slow, get some steals and get some easy baskets. I have a big role, but one person can’t do everything, so all of us realized we need to slow it down.”

“You have to expect that good teams are going to make a run back, that’s just the way it is, and Scott does a great job with his group and there is no quit in them, for sure. I thought a few of our mistakes were self inflicted, but this is good for us. This group has to learn how to win close games and close games out, take care of the ball and get stops. We’re learning. Jada steps up and makes a couple big foul shots and we had a couple big rebounds from different people. You just to learn it through experience, and it’s always better to learn when you’re winning,” Leahy said. “Kate is our leader, obviously, so she goes and gets the ball, makes foul shots and kind of controls the game for us. You have to get stops and take care of the ball, those little things — we just had to gather ourselves a little bit. We already beat two really good teams this week and I told them, ‘we’ve worked too hard to throw this game away. We have a chance to grab this one and finish the week 3-0.’ Fortunately, we were able to. Beating Catholic, Ocean City and Mainland in one week is a heck of a week. I’m really proud of my group, under all the circumstances, to beat three really good teams — three teams that could end up winning our league — is a tremendous accomplishment. Now we’ll get some rest and take it one day at a time, like everyone else is.”

Betson said the key this season is keeping things in perspective, as simply getting the chance to play amid the coronavirus pandemic is a victory in and of itself.

“The bottom line is perspective is huge, especially this year, and every time we get to play is a blessing,” he said. “Every day we’re playing and not shut down, we certainly have to appreciate that.”

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