ATLANTIC CITY — Even with a 28-10 halftime lead, Mainland Regional girls basketball coach Scott Betson had no reason to feel comfortable after the break. He's been around long enough to know that Atlantic City never quits and no lead is safe, especially when you're the visiting team and there's a big contingent of Vikings fans there for the season opener.
The Vikings stormed back from that 18-point halftime deficit behind a flurry of three-point shooting and narrowed the Mustangs' lead all the way down to 42-35 early in the fourth quarter, but Mustangs star junior forward Kylee Watson was there to bail her team out time and again. Watson came into the game needing just one point to reach 1,000 for her career, and she took care of that early on, scoring on her first shot of the game. After a quick celebration at center court, it was back to business, and Atlantic City simply didn't have an answer for Watson, who finished with 31 points, including 9-of-15 from the free-throw line.
After Atlantic City cut the deficit to 42-35 on a huge 3-pointer from Qeiajae Canty, Watson scored on the next possession, and another driving basket a few minutes later put the game out of reach as the Mustangs won, 49-38, at the Martin Luther King School Complex.
Watson had a chance to pick up her 1,000th point at the end of last year, but Ocean City held her scoreless in the second half of the Red Raiders' victory in the South Jersey Group 3 final.
"(Atlantic City) is going to beat a lot of people because they do a lot of things well. We knew this was a big one, opening night, so we were excited to get out of here with a win. Kylee is a different kind of kid. I don't know that (being one point away from 1,000) is a thing that really bothered her," Betson said. "I bet if you asked her, 100 times out of 100 she would trade her 1,000th point for a win in that game last year. I'm just so proud of her. She's a super kid who works so hard and is so deserving of it."
"I have to give credit to my whole team, they played so hard and I know in a lot of people's eyes we're coming in as an underdog in a lot of these games, so we're motivated to do well this year, especially after the way our season ended last year," said Watson, who has been recruited by colleges such as South Carolina, Florida, Oregon and UCLA, among a host of others. "I'm just so happy to be here with my friends and for them to experience this with me. This will be my last year playing with some of the people I've played with since about third grade, so it's amazing. It was awesome. I wasn't too focused on scoring, just helping my team. If I wasn't open I would pass it to Claudia (Mairone), Madison (Hafetz) or 'T' (Taylor Dalzell), and it just happened that way."
Watson scored 13 points in the first half and Dalzell chipped in with seven, but the Vikings began to chip away at the lead late in the third quarter. Consecutive threes from Sanai Macon and Canty got Atlantic City within 40-26 at the end of the third quarter and sparked a 16-2 run that brought the crowd alive and put some pressure on Mainland's four new starters alongside Watson.
"Honestly, I wanted them to move up on defense and be a little more aggressive, especially up top. Once they are in the half-court set and can get the ball in to Kylee, that's a hard matchup for anybody. So, the plan was to put pressure on them and make the guards work to even get the ball up the court. In the first half, we settled for shots we shouldn't be settling for, we need to take the ball to the rim. We got Kylee with two fouls early and we should have attacked more to try to draw that third foul or get some easier baskets," said Atlantic City coach Jason Lantz. "(Watson) is a special player. You do the best you can do. You try to help, but she has some very good shooters on the outside and she's learning how to pass out of double-teams, which makes them a very dangerous team. You have to rotate correctly, be willing to take charges and you have to make their guards work so that she can't get the ball on the inside."
"We have to make a couple more free throws and limit turnovers, but we're young in a lot of spots, and that showed. This will be a good game for us to learn from going forward," Betson said.
Canty finished with 14 points and Macon added 12, and each connected on a trio of 3-pointers, but in the end Watson was just too much for the Vikings to overcome.
"We were talking about how this was going to be a really great atmosphere and a really enthusiastic game, and they definitely gave us that. We knew coming in it wouldn't be an easy game," Watson said. "We have to play physically to make up for some of the size we lost from last year, so we're just trying to play hard and play physical. This is definitely a building block for future games because we did struggle with some things in crunch time. We handled it pretty well, though, considering it was our first game and we were up against one of the better teams in the CAL."
Mainland has a quick turnaround, as the Mustangs travel to the Ocean City PBA Tipoff Classic to face Rancocas Valley at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday at Ocean City High School. Coach Betson wouldn't go as far as saying the Mustangs had any kind of momentum, however, taking a one-game-at-a-time approach.
"I don't know if one game carries over into the next," he said. "We'll just try to get ready for a big game tomorrow against RV, so we're just going to get ready for that."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays