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Lady Panthers rally for CAL title

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MTHS senior point guard Lauryn Fields hoists the CAL title trophy while being surrounded by teammates after beating WCHS GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP – Early in the second quarter, Lauryn Fields peeked up at the scoreboard and saw a 15-point deficit for her Middle Township High School girls basketball team.

That’s when the dynamic senior point guard went to work.

After making only 1 of her first 8 shots, Fields sank five of her last eight attempts and sparked an extraordinary 33-12 run that lasted from midway through the second quarter to midway through the fourth quarter. The result was a stunning 42-39 win for the Lady Panthers over rival Wildwood Catholic in the Cape-Atlantic League title game at Richard Stockton College Saturday afternoon.

Fields finished with 20 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals. Her two steals and assist helped along a 9-2 Middle surge to close the first half. She then made five field goals and scored 12 points in the third quarter to bring her team back in the game, before Bridget Ruskey’s layup as time expired in the period gave Middle the lead entering the final quarter.

“This is our senior year, and there’s no way we were going to let adversity get the best of us,” Fields said. “We were going to make this count.

“Once we got here and we knew it was going to be Wildwood Catholic we didn’t need any more motivation because of the rivalry, even though a lot of us are friends with each other. It meant a lot to be down and come back and win it.”

Middle's Erin Ruskey tries to dribble past Wildwood Catholic's Danielle Sanderlin The Lady Panthers upped their advantage to as high as six points with 3:46 to play. Wildwood Catholic clawed to within a point inside the last minute, but Fields sank two free throws after a Crusader missed shot with six seconds to play to increase her team’s lead to three. A desperation three-pointer from 30 feet by Wildwood Catholic at the buzzer was way off the mark, touching off a wild celebration by Middle’s players and fans.

“It’s incredible,” Middle senior forward Holly McKaig said. “So many people doubted we could do this and that’s why we wanted this so much more. We came out and played our hearts out. This is great.”

Middle, the second seed in the tournament, made 11 of 19 shots from the floor (57.9 percent) in the second half after shooting only 3 for 19 (15.8 percent) in the first.

Wildwood Catholic’s Kennedy Johnson scored 18 points, collected 10 rebounds and blocked two shots but was also saddled with foul trouble for the entire second half after picking up her third foul just prior to halftime. She was also whistled for a technical foul late in the third quarter.

Danielle Sanderlin added 12 points and 12 rebounds for the fourth-seeded Crusaders (20-6).

Wildwood Catholic made only 4 of 18 shots from the floor in the second half after connecting on 9 of 22 tries over the opening two quarters.

“I give Wildwood Catholic a lot of credit because they played a good game,” Middle coach John Leahy said. “I hope they keep their heads up because they have a heck of a team. Hopefully they can make a run in the state tournament.”

Marinna Peterson drives to the basket for a key layup in the third quarter Middle Township improved to 4-4 all time in CAL title games, winning for the first time since 1996. The program’s other CAL championship game victories came in 1995 and in the inaugural game in 1992. Only Absegami (five) has won more CAL title games since the game was established.

The Lady Panthers lost the 2011 CAL title game to Vineland, when the team’s current seniors were freshmen.

Middle led from start to finish in defeating No. 8 Millville and No. 3 Holy Spirit by comfortable margins in the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds of the tournament. Fourth-seeded Wildwood Catholic proved to be a much more difficult foe in the title game.

“I love the format of the tournament. It’s definitely exciting and it really, really prepares you for the state tournament, which is what everyone out there is preparing for this time of year,” Leahy said. “I give our kids a heck of a lot of credit. I said before the tournament started that whoever won it was going to have to beat three really good teams to do it and we did.”

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