LINWOOD — Two months ago, the Ocean City girls basketball team had just lost its fifth straight game and dropped to 1-5 to start the 2019-2020 season. It was early January, and the Red Raiders looked nothing like a team that could even be a factor in the Cape-Atlantic League, much less the state playoffs.

As of tonight — and led by a couple of girls who are better known for their exploits on the soccer field — Ocean City is the South Jersey Group 3 champion for the third time in the last four years. And the Red Raiders beat rival Mainland — the team they have faced in the sectional final in four straight years — in classic coach Paul Baruffi style. They shared the ball, played hard-nosed defense, overcame adversity and got timely shots in the fourth quarter to squeeze out a 32-29 victory, denying Mainland the opportunity to defend its 2019 Group 3 state championship.

Ocean City (22-8) advances to the Group 3 state semifinals at 5 p.m. on Thursday at Deptford High School, where the Red Raiders will face Central Jersey champion Westampton Tech, a 61-53 winner over Neptune.

Remarkably, Ocean City has beaten Mainland in three of the last four sectional finals despite the Mustangs having perhaps the best player in South Jersey history, senior forward Kylee Watson. Watson is a 2,000-point scorer — the leading scorer in all of Mainland basketball history — and has more than 1,000 career rebounds. The New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year is headed to the University of Oregon, but on Tuesday afternoon Ocean City’s swarming defense limited Watson to just three points in the final game of her once-in-a-generation high school career.

“She’s a great player and one of my good friends. It’s always great to play against her,” Ocean City senior Abbey Fenton said of the 6-foot-4 Watson. “I think we were able to take her away (on the inside) and let them take some outside shots. They hit some, but other than that we did a good job of clogging the middle and taking a lot of opportunities away from her.”

“This is the last time I have to prepare to go against Kylee Watson, who is just a tremendous player, but so are the rest of those girls. They have some really good players on that team, but she is really a dynamic player,” Baruffi added.

Second-seeded Ocean City struggled mightily in the first half offensively, managing just five points in the opening quarter and three in the second, and trailed 16-8 going into halftime. And even early in the fourth quarter the Red Raiders trailed by six, 26-20, after Mainland junior Lila Schoen nailed a 3-pointer.

“I told them to just keep shooting. We had a lot of good opportunities right before that happened. We missed a couple around the basket and had a couple go in and out. I told them at halftime, too, you have to let it go. It can’t just be Abbey. I told them to penetrate the seams and look for stuff. Man, I’m just so proud of these girls. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud of a team,” Baruffi said. “We weren’t making shots, but also we had to up the tempo. I didn’t want to do it until the second half; I didn’t want to give them an idea of what to prepare for at halftime, and we haven’t shown that a whole lot, honestly. I just told them we had to go for it, try to look for some baskets in transition, easy shots, and they did it.”

“In the locker room coach Baruffi said eight points is nothing. We kept our heads up and were ready to go. I said, ‘this third quarter is going to mean a lot to us,’ and we came out of that tied. That’s all we could ask for,” said Fenton, who led all scorers with 15 points, including four 3-pointers. “We knew we had good shooting even though some of the shots weren’t falling. Coach Baruffi said they were going to fall, so we just kept putting them up.”

Fenton drained a three to pull Ocean City within 26-25 with three minutes to go, then Lauren Mirsky made perhaps the biggest shot of her career, nailing a baseline jumper to give the Red Raiders the lead for good at 27-26.

“We always talk about keeping an offensive mindset. You have to shoot for them to go in; Mirsky put one up and that was a big basket for us and for our momentum,” Fenton said.

With 50 seconds left, Fenton fed freshman Avery Jackson under the basket to push the lead to 29-26 and then Delaney Lappin — one of the stars of the state championship-winning soccer team, along with Fenton — hit a pair of free throws to make it 31-26.

“(Fenton) and Emma Finnegan have been such great leaders. Every day in practice, in every drill, they are reminding the girls what they should be doing. You couldn’t ask for two better senior captains, and the other ones, also,” Baruffi said. “And these younger girls, Marlee Brestle just plays hard, Marin (Panico) just plays hard, and Avery is a freshman who I think is going to be phenomenal down the road. She came in and gave us some good minutes. I’m just super proud of them.”

Top-seeded Mainland (21-7) wasn’t done, however, as senior Madi Hafetz hit an off-balanced three to get the Mustangs within 31-29 with 17 seconds left. Marlee Brestle then sank 1-of-2 at the line with 15 seconds left, Mainland misfired on its next possession, and after a couple of missed free throws by Ocean City on the other end, the Mustangs’ three-point attempt at the buzzer was off the mark.

“We had a very difficult opening schedule. We were 1-5 for a reason — all those Group 4 schools that we played were in the semifinals of (South Jersey) Group 4, and they toughened us up. We played some other good teams as time went on,” Baruffi said. “We played to try to get a good draw in this tournament, and it really showed against Toms River East (in the semifinals). They pressured us the whole time and it never really bothered us. And the other thing was getting Delaney back (from injury). She didn’t play the first eight games, and you can see all the things she does on the court.”

“It’s awesome. I couldn’t picture my senior year going any other way,” Fenton added. “We’ve worked hard for this. A lot of people didn’t think we were going to win this, but we believed in ourselves. Coach Baruffi said in practice yesterday that we have to believe we can win, and we believed 100 percent that we could win.”

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