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Remarkable run by Lady Panther seniors

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The MTHS girls basketball team enjoyed many successes over the past four seasons EGG HARBOR CITY – The stars seemed to be aligned just right.

Olivia Salvo practically couldn’t miss from the field, making an eye-popping 8 of 10 shots from the floor, most of the shots coming from 14 to 17 feet.

Lauryn Fields wasn’t having her best offensive night, but was playing the game with unyielding determination, leadership and fire. You got the feeling she was going to somehow will her team to victory, no matter what it might take.

Lauren Legler, Erin Ruskey and Holly McKaig were digging in defensively, battling a prolific offensive team to a stalemate both in the paint and on the perimeter.

Marinna Peterson had made a big three-pointer. Bridget Ruskey had provided a couple of key baskets and a handful of points. Julianna Riggitano had risen off the bench for a few fleeting moments and produced a big steal and a key rebound.

Heck, head coach John Leahy’s wife, Cathy, even won the 50-50 drawing held by the opponent’s athletic booster club.

But just when everything seemed to be going the Middle Township High School girls basketball team’s way, Cedar Creek pulled out the rug from under the Lady Panthers’ feet.

Behind a 25-point outburst in the fourth quarter that was helped along by a sensational effort from the foul line in the final minute, Cedar Creek rallied from a seven-point third-quarter hole to catch and pass Middle in the final minutes of Monday’s South Jersey Group II championship game en route to a 56-50 victory.

In a rather evenly-played contest, the foul line was the difference. Cedar Creek made 9 of 11 in the fourth quarter and 10 of 13 in the second half, while Middle made only one of its first eight attempts of the second half and 5 of 13 overall for the game.

“At the end of the day, we missed a lot of free throws in the second half and you have to give them credit for making so many in the fourth quarter because it seemed like they were making all of them,” Leahy said. “Foul shooting is only one phase of the game, but in a game this close the foul line really hurt us.

“I know it’s cliché to say this but this was a game where you saw two really good teams fight so hard that you hate to see someone have to lose it. Unfortunately for us, they made more plays than we did.”

After the teams were locked at 22-22 at the half, Middle began the second half on a 13-6 run to open a 35-28 lead. Cedar Creek responded with a 25-12 surge that spanned the last 1 ½ minutes of the third quarter and the first 7 ½ minutes of the fourth.

Mikila Stefanski scored a game-high 22 points, netting 12 in the fourth quarter for Cedar Creek (24-4). Jahniece Jaffe scored nine of her 12 points in the fourth quarter and Casey Thomas added 11 points.

Salvo led Middle (24-6) with 16 points. Fields added 11, three of which came on a halfcourt shot at the second-quarter buzzer, and Bridget Ruskey added nine off the bench.

“It’s so tough because we worked our behinds off and gave everything we had left,” Fields said. “It’s heartbreaking not to come out with this win. We left it all on the court. I wouldn’t ask for a better team and a better coaching staff to be with for my career.”

The loss ended an extraordinary run for Middle Township’s seniors, who won 99 games against only 27 losses during their careers. They also played in three South Jersey title games, won one sectional title, claimed three Cape-Atlantic League regular-season conference championships and won this year’s CAL Playoff Tournament.

So a loss in Monday’s South Jersey title game won’t diminish the efforts of one of the greatest four-year runs in program history.

“I couldn’t be more proud of our seven seniors and what they’ve meant to this program,” Leahy said. “What they accomplished, win or lose in this game, speaks for itself. The effort they gave – I couldn’t be prouder.

“The adversity these kids fought through, with kids being out with injuries, they were able to stick together, fight together and figure it out. We were able to win the CAL, we were able to make the (South Jersey) final again. We have so much to be proud of.”

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