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FREEHOLD TWP. - Grace Meehan cops to being a rhythm shooter prone to instances of momentary black outs. The condition isn’t a medical issue but some kind of self-induced hypnosis that clears the mind of any thought. 

The junior guard is completely coherent as she explores the perimeter in Middletown South’s halfcourt sets, prowling for a location to slip into her altered state, much like a cobra coils into an instinctual position primed to strike. Her range is endless, her shooting stroke pure but she’d never know it. Upon release, Meehan is practically subconscious, only revived back into reality upon hearing the crowd’s reaction to what she has done. 

Everything goes blank when I shoot,” Meehan described. “That’s when the sound comes back and I’m like ‘yeah, I made it.’ I just shoot it.”

Grace Meehan of Middletown South (Photo by Gregg Lerner)

The explanation sounds far too basic for an exercise so complex, offered by a player whose modesty represents exactly what hatched her unconscious long-range exhibition when the Eagles needed it most. 

In a span of 3:15 of the fourth quarter, Meehan drained three 3-pointers, each one deeper than the previous. The clinic wasn’t conducted solely by her but was a byproduct of ball movement and timely recognitions from a cast operating in total cohesion. 

While some would think standout Kayla Richardson would be the primary beneficiary under such circumstance, it was the infectious selflessness of the LaSalle-bound senior swing serving as the fulcrum that embodied a second-half offensive revival which vaulted sixth-seeded and defending sectional champion Middletown South past third-seeded Freehold Township, 56-50, on Thursday night in the quarterfinal round of the Central Jersey, Group 4 tournament. 

After a sluggish first half in which they shot 7 of 22, the Eagles (15-10) were a razor-sharp 14 of 21 from the field over the final 16 minutes (7 of 9 behind the arc) in overcoming a 10-point deficit late in the second quarter. 

Kayla Richardson of Middletown South (12) tries to gain position against Hannah Orloff of Freehold Twp. (Photo by Gregg Lerner)

While Meehan and sophomores Renee Wells and Bella Orlando interchanged as the snipers lurking on the periphery, Richardson was the constant dispenser, picking up five of her six assists after intermission, four of which set up threes as she repeatedly kicked out to open shooters to expose defenders collapsing in her vicinity.

"It was during either a time out or in between quarters that Kayla was the first person to say when she gets the ball in low, she was getting doubled and someone needed to get into the window," shared Middletown South coach Tom Brennan. "That's Kay. She is always looking to make her teammates better."

"I want to leave a legacy that I have confidence in my teammates to make shots," said Richardson, who hit a few of her own in racking up 14 points as well as five rebounds and three blocks. "Games like this where I’m playing Hannah Orloff, who is taller than me, really lengthy and good shot blocker, my role was to distribute. I don’t need to score. If someone else steps up to do that and we win, I'm glad she did. It's more important for the long term to help the younger players to develop the confidence that they can knock down shots."

Her words are strong, but Richardson's actions were stronger, especially when the Eagles needed them most.

Hannah Orloff (30) of Freehold Twp. (Photo by Gregg Lerner)

Freehold Twp. (17-10) raced to a 13-4 lead in the game's first six minutes and increased the gap to 26-16 with under a minute left in the first half. Orloff was the driving force, piling up 13 of her game-high 22 points during that stretch, marked by a milestone bucket.

The 6-2 junior forward took a inside feed from junior guard Kaylie Elsbree, turned and hit a jumper inside the foul line for the 1,000th point of her career.

Junior guard Kaylie Elsbree scored six of her 11 points before the break on a pair of threes and a driving layup from junior guard Emily Tran gave the Patriots a 10-point cushion with 40 seconds showing in the half but Richardson doused their enthusiasm with a 3-pointer that closed the gap to 26-19 at the half and was a harbinger of things to come.

Down, 28-19, early in the third, Middletown South went to work. Richardson dropped another three and Orlando canned two more as the Eagles began to build momentum, ultimately leading to Richardson kicking out to Wells on the right wing for a 3-pointer that handed South its first lead, 38-37, with 23 seconds to go in the period.

“We practice a lot on shooting from the outside," said Orlando, who along with Wells, finished with eight points and each accounted for two of the 10 threes compiled by the Eagles. "What we’re putting in at practice is paying off in games. We’re playing for tomorrow so there is no point in leaving anything behind. We’re playing for our seniors and we’re playing for each other. Give it your all and play your hardest."

Meehan, who pumped in a team-high 16 points, assumed the spotlight in the fourth. Her back-to-back treys, each off a Richardson pass, were the punctuating points to a 27-9 tear that delivered the Eagles a 46-37 cushion with 5:20 left in the contest. For good measure, Meehan dropped her third triple of the stanza from five feet inside the time line to make it 53-42 with 3:30 on the clock.

"She has that kind of range, but that one in particular, she took so much time loading that shot... that was the one I was certain was going in," said Brennan. "We can play Grace inside, off the elbow, and outside. Now, its another piece in the equation that other teams are going to have to figure out."

"It was really cool," Meehan said of her explosive fourth quarter, in which she produced 10 points. " We’ve been working on our chemistry as a team and it’s finally clicking now. It’s amazing to watch and play in. We had to throw away our own stuff and focus on our team." 

 

Middletown South (15-10) 09 10 21 16 --- 56
Freehold Twp. (17-10) 13 13 11 13 --- 50

Middletown South: Lara Brennan 0-1-0-3; Beth Rankin 1-0-0-2; Kayla Richardson 4-2-0-14; Abygail Doherty 1-0-1-3; Renee Wells 1-2-0-8; Stephanie Mayerhofer 1-0-0-2; Bella Orlando 0-2-2-8; Grace Meehan 3-3-1-16. 

Freehold Twp.: Lindsay Lloyd 0-1-0-3; Courtney Campbell 0-0-0-0; Tanya Elsbree 2-0-5-9; Emily Tran 1-0-3-5; Maddie Garze 0-0-0-0; Kaylie Elsbree 1-3-0-11; Hannah Orloff 9-0-4-22.

Follow Gregg Lerner on Twitter @gregglerner. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.

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