Buena Regional High School’s Caroline Santiago gave an interesting answer when asked what she thought has aided the Chiefs’ turnaround in recent weeks.
After winning six in a row and staying within striking distance with powerhouses Sacred Heart, Cedar Creek and St. Joseph, the senior forward didn’t say it was improved patience with the offensive sets or better work at the defensive end of the floor — both of which have certainly improved though.
Instead, Santiago said, “Fitness. No doubt about it. It’s something that has made a huge different in the last couple of games.
“We’ve been finishing our games better lately. We would get off to strong starts, but we’d get killed at the end of games.”
Buena coach Misty Russo, who has had to work with a short bench this season, agreed.
“We were losing it in the third and fourth quarters,” she said. “We had to find a way to improve those two quarters.”
To accomplish that, Russo pulled out a number feared by most basketball players — 16.
It’s a very common basketball routine that has players running from sideline to sideline until they reach 16.
“They don’t like doing 16’s,” she said. “Every practice they come up and ask if it’s part of the itinerary for that day.”
The extra cardio work has paid dividends as the Chiefs have shown drastic improvement in their rematches against Cedar Creek and St. Joseph. In the first two meetings against those squads, they were beaten by 28 and 25, respectively. The second time around — 9 and 13.
Quiet Chief, loud game
The second-half strategy was simple for Buena during Sunday’s Prime Events Shootout against Millville.
“Get the ball to Caroline,” Russo said.
And why not? The senior forward was unstoppable, delivered a career-best 27 points. She scored all of the Chiefs’ 15 points in the fourth quarter, including four different plays down low where she made the field goal and drew contact in the process.
“She’s just so athletic,” her coach said. “In practice, everything I throw at her, she’ll get her hands on the ball. I’ll even try to make the passes hard to get to, but she always catches them.”
Santiago, who missed most of her sophomore year following a serious knee injury, has steadily improved her game including a stellar senior season so far. She has picked up her scoring touch lately, averaging 15 points per game over her last six games.
“She’s a nice, quiet, hard-working kid,” Russo said. “Sometimes I don’t think she knows how good of a basketball player she really is.”
Dribbling around the area
Sacred Heart will host its Grammar School Night on Feb. 7 during its game against Buena at 6 p.m. Any player attending with a grammar school jersey will be admitted to the high school game for free. The Lions will also raffle off a free week at the school’s Skills Camp. It will also be Senior Night at Sacred Heart as the team will honor Mandy Buirch, Alyssa Ferrucci, Gabby Sorantino and Brooke Farside.
Tests confirmed Our Lady of Mercy senior Caitlyn Covella suffered an ACL tear in her right knee last week, according to coach Chip Reitano. Four of the Villagers starters from this year’s team have suffered a major knee injury on the home court over the past three seasons.
Despite missing one of its leaders, the Villagers enjoyed one of the best games of the season with a 51-49 triumph over Woodrow Wilson in the first round of the SJBIT tournament. However, due to a scheduling conflict, the team had to bow out of the winner’s bracket game. It would have played Rancocas Valley in the the second round.
Millville has quickly climbed up the standings in the Cape-Atlantic League American Conference, but even with its upset win over Holy Spirit on Tuesday, the team will need major help to capture the title. The Spartans (8-1 in the American) will have to lose two of their three remaining conference games in order for Millville (6-3) to have any shot of forcing a co-championship.
Who will be the area’s unsung hero this season? Millville’s McKenzie Taylor should garner plenty of votes. The junior has provided solid production off the bench this season at both ends of the floor for the Thunderbolts. Her teammate, guard Nicki Read, is in the running too.
As of last week, Delsea’s Amanda Schmidt ranked third in the state in 3-point field goals, according to the website nj.com. The senior had 41 triples, trailing Dumont’s Gina Yannette (53) and Sayreville’s Jackie Rodriguez (45). Schmidt currently has 44 in 14 games. … OLMA freshman Katie Kavanagh has averaged 9.5 points over her last two games. …. Delsea’s Taylor Christina has averaged 15.2 points over her last five games including a season-high 22 points against Kingsway. … Cumberland snapped a 14-game losing streak, dating back to last year, with a 25-22 win over Gateway on Friday. Senior Katie McCormick has scored 17 points in her last two games, including a game-high nine against Gateway.
Games to Watch
St. Joseph at Sacred Heart, tonight, 6 p.m. — It will be tough for these two teams to top the first meeting when the Lions earned a 52-47 victory in overtime on Jan. 3. Sacred Heart will need a win to keep its United Conference title hopes alive.
Delsea at Clearview, tonight, 5:30 p.m. — If the Crusaders have any hope of defending their Tri-County Conference Royal Division title, a win here is a must. They dropped a 52-45 decision at home to Clearview on Jan. 3
Millville at Mainland, Friday, 6 p.m. — The Thunderbolts should be anxious for redemption in this one. The Mustangs dominated the first meeting en route to a 60-34 rout.
Clearview at Sacred Heart, Saturday, 1 p.m. — This is a second-round matchup in the South Jersey Invitational Basketball Tournament. The Lions had a first-round bye while Clearview eliminated Collingswood.
Tom’s Super Six*
1. Sacred Heart (14-2) — The Lions have won four straight and 10 of their last 11; looking to make serious noise in the South Jersey Invitational Basketball Tournament.
2. Millville (11-5) — Hottest team in the Cape-Atlantic League owns a league-best nine-game winning treak.
3. Buena (8-7) — The Chiefs are 1-3 in their last four games, but have shown significant improvement since start of the season.
4. Delsea (6-10) — Last six games have been decided by 10 or fewer points, the Crusaders are 3-3 during the stretch..
5. OLMA (8-8) — Up-and-down season has hit an upswing, the Villagers are riding a three-game winning streak.
6. Bridgeton (5-12) — This talented team can’t seem to put anything together during a five-game losing skid.