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Cedar Creek reaches SJ title game for 2nd time in 3 years

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Blackwellaction Matt Strabuk/Cedar Creek center Fatimah Blackwell goes up for a rebound in Saturday's playoff game. EGG HARBOR CITY - It's kind of becoming a tradition for a school and a basketball program that isn't even old enough to have a tradition yet.

The Cedar Creek High School girls basketball team is going back to a South Jersey championship game after dominating the second half of a 64-39 win Saturday over Lower Cape May Regional in the Group II semifinal.

Casey Thomas scored 15 points, while frontcourt partner Fatimah Blackwell added 13 points and 14 rebounds for the third-seeded Pirates (23-4), who will host No. 4 Middle Township in an all-Cape-Atlantic League SJ Group II final Monday at 6 p.m.

Mikila Stefanski scored 13 points and sister Mercina Stefanski added nine for Cedar Creek, which led by only two at halftime but broke free of Lower in the third quarter with a 9-0 run out of the chute, taking advantage of their inside-outside offense.

“It’s been a long ride this year,” coach Fran Raph said, “They’ve always been a team - the guards can’t do it without the (big girls), the ‘bigs’ can’t do it without the guards. So it’s been a whole team. There’s never really been a star on our team this year. Anybody can come up big any game.”

In recent games, it’s been big sophomore Blackwell, who registered her second straight double-double in the playoffs. Blackwell has elevated her game at the right time, giving the Pirates a “Twin Towers” attack with Thomas down low to complement the sharpshooters from the perimeter.

“Now I feel like we’re a complete team,” Raph said.

“Fatimah has come such a long way,” Mikila Stefanski said. “When she came in as a freshman, I was like, ‘Oh my god, this girl is huge.’ But she didn’t have good footwork. She’s like a sponge, she sucks everything up, and I’m proud of her. She comes in against seniors and she’s only a sophomore, and she holds her own.”

“We have both now,” Blackwell said. “We’ve got down low, we’ve got the up-top shooters. It’s good that we have that, because most teams really don’t have post players and shooters. I think it’s a really good thing for our team. It makes us harder to defend.”

That was never more evident than in the opening minutes of the third quarter. Blackwell and Thomas scored on the inside, followed by 3-point baskets by Jahniece Jaffe and Mikila Stefanski, and the Pirates were on their way.

They also changed up their defense, going to a man-to-man/zone mix with three guards up front, to contain Lower’s sensational junior Lauren Holden, who scored 12 of her team-high 17 points in the first half.

“We kind of threw something in there that we don’t usually do,” Raph said. “That was the only way we could really shut (Holden) down. Lauren’s an awesome player. She’s definitely the best player in South Jersey, so we had to do something to contain her, and we did a good job adjusting because we’d never done anything like that before.”

Two years ago, in only their second season as a varsity team, the Pirates rode the dominating talents of center Kristine Miller to a South Jersey Group I and state championship. This year, the Pirate seniors – including the four Stefanski sisters and Jaffe – are geared up for one final run at another championship.

“It’s definitely one of the things I wanted to accomplish as a senior,” Mikila Stefanski said. “We lost two very key players from last year’s team, so me and my sisters and (Jaffe) had to take the role of leaders. It’s a big deal to get to the Group (championship).”

There is also the incentive to overcome the disappointment of losing to Wildwood Catholic in a CAL semifinal earlier this month. “We never win the CAL,” Stefanski said. “Winning a South Jersey championship would be much better.”

To do so, they have to get by a very tough Middle team, which is playing its best basketball of the season right now. The Panthers (24-5) came back in the second half to beat Wildwood Catholic in the CAL championship game, and overtook top seed Delsea Regional, 49-27, in Saturday’s other Group II semifinal.

Cedar Creek beat Middle 66-39 in January, but the Panthers were missing Lauren Legler to a foot injury and also lost star Lauryn Fields to an injury in the first  half of that game.

“They’re definitely a tough team,” Stefanski said of Middle. “We can’t underestimate them. They’re a good defensive team. They’re very smart, they’re patient, they have good coaches. We’ll have to play real hard.”

mikilaaction Matt Strabuk/Cedar Creek senior Mikila Stefanski takes a 3-point shot in Saturday's playoff game against Lower. thomasaction Matt Strabuk/Cedar Creek junior Casey Thomas gets fouled as she shoots against Lower. Holden Matt Strabuk/Lower's Lauren Holden brings the ball up against Cedar Creek defenders (front to back) Mercina Stefanski, Casey Thomas and Fatimah Blackwell. Blackwell Bill LeConey/Cedar Creek sophomore center Fatimah Blackwell. Mikila Stefanski Bill LeConey/Cedar Creek senior guard Mikila Stefanski

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