Middletown, NJ- The Middletown South Eagles have captured their third straight NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III Title Monday night with a 55-40 win over Neptune in front of a sold out crowd at Middletown High School South.

Stephanie Karcz, Shore Sports Network’s Girls Basketball Player of the Year, slammed the door shut for Neptune on consecutive possessions with under three minutes to play that took the life out of the Neptune comeback bid.

When the excitement filled the South gymnasium, Coach Tom Brennan was quick to reflect on his teams success when he added, “This group of young ladies has and will always have a special place in my heart after everything they have done this season following my bypass surgery. It would have been easy for them to lose focus but Coach Jess Chalmers and the players kept to the plan coming into the season and tonight was a culmination of everyone’s dedication to each other.”

Middletown South's Stephanie Karcz drives against Neptune (photo Eric Braun)

The game opened very sloppy for both teams who combined for seven turnovers after South’s Isla Brennan hit her first field goal of the night enroute to 16 points for the freshman. The next three minutes of play were a turnover fest followed by cheap fouls for both teams. Once the game settled down, both Middletown South and Neptune showed why they were last two teams standing in Central Jersey Group III.

The Eagles would jump out to a 13-6 first quarter lead behind the scoring from Brennan with 4 points, junior Alexandra Balsamo with 2 points, Karcz with 4 points and Julia Valkos with 3.

Neptune would climb back into the game quickly in the second quarter behind a free throw from Brianna Love, a coast-to-coast layup from Desiree Allen and a 3-pointer from Love to cut the lead 16-14 with just under 5 minutes to play in the half.

The game would find its legs from this point with teams trading baskets, great ball movement and crucial rebounding on both ends. After the Scarlet Fliers pulled to within two points, Middletown South would lean on the second 3-pointer of the quarter from senior Julia Valkos who pushed the Eagles lead to 21-17. Karcz would finish the second quarter scoring with a steal and layup for two to send the Eagles to a 23-20 first half lead.

Middletown South vs Neptune (photo Eric Braun)

Afterwards Karcz added “when we went into the half we weren’t really playing our best and Neptune started to make a run at us so we changed up our defense to take away their inside game and rely on three point shots.”

The second half opened Neptune’s Rahmena Henderson and Love hitting on a layup and three pointer respectively to pull the Fliers to within one point at 26-25. The Eagles got on the board in the third quarter when Emily McCarthy hit her first basket of the evening and pushed the lead to 28-25. Allen would drive coast-to-coast to cut the lead again to one at 28-27 but that would be the closest Neptune would get to Middletown South again for the game.

Middletown South's Isla Brennan drives against Neptune (photo Eric Braun)

The Eagles offense struggled to find consistency and was hurt at the foul line that could have put the game away earlier. Middletown South opened the game going 0-for-8 from the line before finishing the game 10-for-22. Most importantly Karcz and Brennan put the game out of reach in the closing minutes going a combined 8-for-8 from the line. Isla was able to give coach/dad the game of her life on the biggest stage finishing with 16 points and 8 rebounds.

In the end though it was the back-to-back plays from senior Karcz that sealed the win for the Eagles.  With just under three minutes to play and South holding to a 43-38 lead, Neptune's Allen took the ball coast-to-coast and thought she had a clear lane until Karcz stepped in and came up with a massive block that was rebounded by Balsamo who found an open McCarthy for the layup and a 45-38 lead.  On the very next trip for Neptune it was Karcz again coming up with another crucial block this time on Love and again rebounded by Balsamo who went coast-to-coast for the bucket to increase the Eagles lead to 49-38 and take the life right out of the Neptune comeback.

Stephanie would finish with a game high 20 points to go along with 4 steals, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks. In celebration mode, Karcz added “tonight was a special night for us to give back to coach Tom and as a senior to win our final home game as State Champs is an awesome feeling...we have unfinished business from last year and if we stay focused we can obtain our goals.”

Alexandra Balsamo finished with 6 points, 10 rebounds and 2 steals. Senior Jula Valkos who missed some time during her season due to injury came back in a big way against Neptune with aggressive defense that resulted in 4 Fliers turnovers to go along with her 9 points and 3 rebounds.

Middletown South Celebrates CJGIII Title (photo Eric Braun)

With the win, Middletown South (24-3 overall and 12-0 A-North) will travel to Deptford High School on Thursday at 7pm to take on Ocean City (25-4 overall and 10-0 conference).


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