Midway through the second quarter, Azana Baines charged the basket and, airborne, twirled the ball around her back — switching it from her left to right hand — and converted a scoop layup while being fouled hard and crashing to the floor.
The gasps from the crowd were audible, and when they died down, a voice yelled to one of the boys’ teams watching in the packed gym: “I bet you guys can’t do that.”
No one objected.
Saturday at the Seagull Classic at Holy Spirit, the Gloucester Catholic and Mainland girls’ basketball game was a meeting between two generational South Jersey talents in Baines, a 6-foot junior guard, and Mainland’s 6-foot-4 sophomore guard, Kylee Watson.
The two ultimately served as ringmasters as their teams hijacked the proceedings in a dazzling, two-hour-plus battle that ended with Mainland edging the Rams, 54-52, in double overtime.
“This is a testament to our entire team,” said Mainland coach Scott Betson who, in his sixth season with the program, picked up his 100th career win.
Baines finished with 27 points and seven rebounds. Watson — who won a gold medal with the Under-16 national team over the summer — generated 24 points and nine rebounds.
But, putting a perfect cherry on top of the theatrics, the winning shot was sunk with 2 seconds left by an unassuming player who hadn’t scored yet and, in fact, was 0 for 6 from the field to that point.
When the shot went in, “I jumped higher than I’ve than I’ve ever jumped in my life,” said Claudia Mairone, who converted the wide-open three-pointer from the top of the arc off a timeout to improve her team’s record to 7-1. “I knew the shot might come, but it wasn’t a play specifically set up for me. We were saying if we couldn’t get it to Kylee, me and Francesca [Geromini] were the other two options.
“When I got the ball, I didn’t think — I just shot it.”
That Watson wasn’t open on that final play was not surprising. The Rams (6-2) had smothered her for most of the game with Baines and, particularly, forwards Kaitlyn Racobaldo (four points, four rebounds) and Jada Williams (eight points, six rebounds, four blocks), making her earn every point she scored.
Most of Watson’s damage was done at the foul line, and she got increasingly better as the game went on. She finished 16 of 20 from the line, including 6 of 6 in the fourth quarter and 3 of 4 in overtime.
Her performance in the fourth quarter was particularly crucial after the Rams, trailing for all of the first three quarters, ripped off a 10-run to take a 41-35 lead with 3:29 left. All six of Watson’s free throws in the quarter were made after that — including a pair to tie the game with 26 seconds left in regulation.
“It’s really nice of having that feeling of just making those shots and staying calm,” said Watson, who said she tried not to look at the game as a showdown between her and Baines. “The good thing is we have a lot of great shooters. We have a lot of assets, which is really nice, and I know it’s not all on me.”
While Watson found little room to operate for most of the game, Baines, one of the state’s slickest ball-handlers, weaved her way in and out traffic all game, and, as the game picked up, so did her physicality and intensity.
Baines scored 12 of her 27 points in the fourth quarter and overtimes. She put back her missed shot with 49 seconds left in the second overtime to give the Rams a 52-49 lead. Watson answered back with a bucket with 38 seconds left. Gloucester Catholic missed a pair of free throws on the other end — the Rams were 3 of 11 from the line in the game — to set up Mairone’s winner.
“I was the one who tried to get the ball when [Baines] literally carried it around her back,” Mairone said, smiling as she shrugged. “She was really good. … We definitely overcame a lot of adversity in the game.”
Gloucester Catholic 5 14 12 12 4 5 — 52
Mainland 13 13 7 10 4 7 — 54
GC: Mikaela Neilio 4, Jada Williams 8, Kaitlyn Racobaldo 4, Azana Baines 27, Emily Leonhardt 3, Lynzie Eggers 6.
M: Kylee Watson 24, Francesca Geromini 4, Gabrielle Boggs 4, Alyssa Nazorok 6, Georgia Schoen 10, Taylor Dalzell 3, Claudia Mairone 3.