TOMS RIVER - Middletown South girls basketball coach Tom Brennan tried to downplay the fact that he was one win away from a milestone victory heading into Sunday night's WOBM Christmas Classic semifinal against Red Bank Catholic, but his team was determined not to leave Pine Belt Arena without breaking out the special "300" cutout they made in honor of their coach.

The second-seeded Eagles put together their best effort of the early season to knock off the third-seeded Caseys 59-45 and advance to face defending champion Manasquan in the final at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday at Pine Belt Arena. Junior Stephanie Karcz tied her career high by pouring in 27 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and dishing out 5 assists to lead the way, while the Eagles' 1-3-1 defense forced 21 turnovers and held RBC to 4-for-26 shooting from 3-point range. It all added up to the 300th win of Brennan's career in his 19th season with the Eagles.

Middletown South celebrated win No. 300 for head coach Tom Brennan after beating Red Bank Catholic in the WOBM Christmas Classic semifinals. (Photo by Kevin Williams)

"To get a landmark win against a team with the history that (RBC) has, it's nice,'' Brennan said. "I've been kind of trying to deflect it as much as I possibly could. I wasn't aware that they were aware because we haven't talked about it at all. As cliche as it sounds, it doesn't matter if it's one or it's 300, it's about them. Like Chuck Daly said, 'I'm a pretty good coach when I have good players.'''

"It's an awesome honor,'' Karcz said. "We knew coming in that he was at 299, and especially to do it against RBC, they're such a good team. We just went out and played for him. He's very humble about everything and that's what makes him such a great coach. He thinks more about us than he does about himself. When special stuff like this happens, we try to make it very special for him."

Middletown South junior Stephanie Karcz poured in a career-high 27 points to help the Eagles reach the WOBM Christmas Classic final and give coach Tom Brennan a milestone victory. (Photo by Scott Stump)

The Eagles did it while playing short-handed, as they lost standout Jill Falvey to a torn ACL before the season began and played Sunday without sophomore starter Haley Dalonzo, who suffered an ankle injury four days ago and is not expected to return until Saturday. A balanced effort behind Karcz helped compensate for their absence, as sophomore guard Alexandra Balsamo added 12 points, and senior guard Angela DeBartolome and junior forward Julia Valkos each added eight points.

Middletown South's starting lineup scored all of its points, so not only was the 1-3-1 zone important as far as creating turnovers and transition chances, it also helped the Eagles catch a quick breather on defense considering Karcz played all 32 minutes and the other starters logged heavy minutes.

"We're long, and the 1-3-1 is something we don't show a lot, but because we're so down, body-wise, we have to find ways to save fouls and things of that nature,'' Brennan said. "I just thought our length really created problems for them."

"It helped us conserve energy because most of us were playing the whole game, but it also helped because they have a lot of shooters and it kept them on the 3-point line, where they weren't making shots,'' Balsamo said.

After jumping out to a 15-8 first-quarter lead by forcing RBC into 2-for-12 shooting from the field and six turnovers, the Eagles extended the margin to 15 points with a 9-1 run to start the second quarter. They were pushing the ball in transition at every opportunity, with either Karcz whipping long outlet passes off rebounds or pushing it herself. Karcz and Balsamo proved tough to slow down in the open court, getting into the lane consistently.

"Any time you can get easy offense, you have to get it,'' Brennan said. "We struggle in halfcourt sets, so as much as we can get easy stuff, we want to push."

"Pushing the ball is usually what we're all about,'' Karcz said. "We tried to capitalize on it today because we knew we were going to get some steals."

The 5-foot-9 Karcz teamed with the 5-foot-9 Valkos at the top of the 1-3-1 to clog the passing lanes and contest any jumpers with their long reach. RBC shot 4-for-18 from the field in the first half in addition to committing 12 turnovers.

"We had all our man-to-man match-ups at the beginning, but we just felt like (the 1-3-1) was better,'' Karcz said. "We could get traps, get steals and push the ball."

RBC trimmed the lead to 27-18 at the half behind forward Danielle Coakley, who had five of her 10 points in the final 3:52 of the first half to get the deficit to single digits. However, the Eagles never let the Caseys back into the game, as Karcz scored in the lane and Valkos had a putback on a third-chance opportunity to open the third quarter and extend the lead back to 13 points.

"As long as we stayed calm, we felt like we would be fine,'' Balsamo said. "We have so much confidence in everyone on our team."

RBC never got the margin back to single digits, as Karcz poured in nine points in the final three minutes of the third quarter, capping the period with a lay-up at the buzzer to make it 46-28 after the lead had been as many as 20.

"They were all tired, but they found energy late,'' Brennan said.

Karcz then scored seven fourth-quarter points to help wrap up the win. RBC tried to make a late push behind a pair of threes by senior guard Alex Barazotti, who led the Caseys with 14 points, but couldn't get much to fall as they shot 2-for-11 from 3-point range in the final period.

It gave Brennan his milestone win, and it now gives the Eagles an opportunity to test themselves against the best team in the state. Manasquan routed Freehold Township 83-44 in the other semifinal behind 30 points from Notre Dame recruit Marina Mabrey.

"I think some kids had some confidence issues, and hopefully this is something to build on,'' Brennan said about the win.

"My dream is to play (Marina) Mabrey because I know she's going to Notre Dame and I've always wanted to play against her,'' Balsamo said. "My old teammates Stella Clark and Addie Masonius are on Manasquan, so I'm super excited to play them."

 

Box score

Middletown South 59, Red Bank Catholic 45

Red Bank Catholic (45): Larkins 2 1-1 6, Hanson 2 1-2 5, Rice 2 2-3 6, Coakley 3 4-7 10, Carroll 0 0-0 0, Barazotti 4 3-4 14, Moore 1 0-0 2, Caverly 1 0-0 2. 15 11-17 45.

Midd. South (59): DeBartolome 2 3-4 8, Valkos 3 2-4 8, Karcz 11 4-9 27, Naughton 0 0-0 0, Curtis 2 0-0 4, Montes 0 0-0 0, Balsamo 5 1-3 12, Cook 0 0-0 0. Totals: 23 10-20 59.

RB Catholic  8  10  10  17 - 45

Midd. South  15  12 19  13 - 59

Three-pointers: (M) DeBartolome, Karcz, Balsamo; (R) Barazotti 3, Larkins. Fouled out: None.