SOUTH PLAINFIELD — As she sat on the cusp of a milestone she’d dreamed about since middle school, Kate McLaughlin faced a lot of pressure for the South Plainfield High School girls basketball team.
McLaughlin entered Tuesday’s game against Governor Livingston with 998 career points, knowing she was just one basket from the century mark.
With 3:56 left in the first quarter, McLaughlin canned a corner jumper to reach 1,000 points and poured in 14 more to lead the seventh-seeded Tigers to a 52-44 victory in the first round of the North 2 Group III Tournament. The senior guard led all scorers with 16 points and made four clutch free throws down the stretch to boost South Plainfield into a quarterfinal matchup with second-seeded West Essex Wednesday.
“It means a lot to me because I’ve been thinking about this since I was little, before I even got here to high school,” McLaughlin said. “So to get it in a state game is just awesome. It’s such a great feeling. But to get it in a game like this that we won is a big plus.”
McLaughlin scored 11 of her 16 points in the second half, including a pair of 3-pointers in the opening minutes of the third quarter to thwart 10th-seeded Governor Livingston.
“She is the steadying influence on our team,” South Plainfield head coach Kevin Hughes said. “We have some players that can step up when Kate gets taken out of the game by the defense, but we go as she goes. It was nice for her to get it out of the way early, but she’s been incredible. She’s a big-game player and a gamer.”
McLaughin knocked down a pair of free throws with 25.5 remaining to push the lead to 50-41, after Governor Livingston was whistled for a technical foul. For the game, she made 5-6 from the line and the Tigers were 15-22 as a team from the charity stripe.
“We know that games are won and lost at the free throw line and we couldn’t lose this one at the line,” Hughes said. “I thought we out-played them and I didn’t want to see us lose it at the line. We stepped up and made some big ones.”
Sarah Cargill added 14 points for South Plainfield, including six in the final stanza. Yasmeen Mighty controlled the boards for the Tigers, hauling in 16 rebounds to go with four steals.
Hughes noted that a player like Mighty can control a game without scoring – Mighty had just three points for the game.
“She’s an x-factor. I told her before the game that they can scout us, but they can’t simulate Yasmeen running up and down the court and cleaning the boards,” he said.
Governor Livingston nearly made a dramatic comeback in the fourth quarter, but couldn’t come up with a big stop on defense when it needed to down the stretch. Sara Dilly hit for five of her team-high 13 points in the fourth quarter for the Highlanders and both Hayley Berliner and Patrice DiTommaso chipped in 10 points. But DiTommaso fouled out with 2:13 remaining and scored just two points after the fourth quarter.
The teams played a sloppy final quarter, committing 14 combined turnovers and constantly getting trapped in the backcourt.
“We stuck together when they put a lot of pressure on us,” McLaughlin said. “We kept it together and pulled this one out.”
Hughes said that however far his team goes in the state tournament is “gravy,” considering the season they’ve had up to this point.
“We’ve won 19 games; we haven’t had that around here in forever. We’re division champions and we had a state playoff game at home that we won. We’ll go have fun Wednesday and let it ride,” he said.