By BRIAN CUNNIFF
JACKSON – It ended in heartache, because that’s the way it goes for all but one team in the New Jersey state high school basketball playoffs.
Tears flowed in the locker room, not only because the season was over but also because it was a missed opportunity.
The outsider might look at Wildwood Catholic’s 54-50 overtime loss to Ranney in the South Jersey Non-Public B title game as a tremendous statement for the Crusaders, that they hung with the No. 1-ranked team in the state and the No. 13-ranked team in the country, a club that includes at least three Division I college basketball players, including two McDonald’s All-Americans.
Those close Wildwood Catholic’s program were left frustrated, though, because not only could Wildwood Catholic have won the game, it probably should have won the game.
The Crusaders held a four-point lead and had the ball with less than four minutes remaining. They also led by three with less than two minutes remaining. But Ranney managed to tie the score, even had a long jumper in the air at the fourth-quarter buzzer than would have won it, then held Wildwood Catholic to only two points in overtime.
“We’re very disappointed,” Wildwood Catholic coach Dave DeWeese said. “I believed we were going to win and the kids believed they were going to win even though not many other people believed it. I think our kids really proved themselves. Unfortunately we made a couple mistakes that allowed them back in the game. I thought we had the game in hand but we had a couple bad judgments and they’re too good of a team to make those kind of mistakes against.”
Villanova signee Bryan Antoine and Florida signee Scottie Lewis are Ranney’s two McDonald’s All-Americans. They also feature Florida preferred walk-on Alex Klatsky and a couple of other younger players with college potential.
But Wildwood Catholic – a team with just one senior in its rotation – went toe to toe with the Panthers throughout as the score was tied at halftime, after the third quarter, after regulation and midway through overtime.
“I think we proved we can play with anybody and that we have a lot of heart,” said Wildwood Catholic junior forward Jahlil White, who had 10 points and brilliantly handled the ball against intense Ranney pressure.
Lewis (17 points) and Antoine (16) led Ranney. Junior Jacob Hopping scored nine of his 14 points in the fourth quarter for Wildwood Catholic. Junior Taj Thweatt chipped in 13 points.
Despite the sectional title game loss, Wildwood Catholic enjoyed one of the best seasons in program history. The final 27-2 record set a program record for wins in a season. The team also produced a program-record 22-game winning streak that lasted more than two months, from late December until Wednesday’s defeat. Along the way, Wildwood Catholic won the Cape-Atlantic League Playoff Tournament for the second straight season and third time overall and beat renowned programs such as Cherokee, Moorestown, the Patrick School, Marist, Archbishop Carroll (Pa.), Plainfield, Paterson Kennedy, Eastern, Immaculata, St. Augustine Prep (twice), St. Joseph (twice) and Pleasantville (twice). And it entered the state tournament ranked sixth in the state.
“We far surpassed any expectations I had going into the season,” DeWeese said. “I think we continued to do that (against Ranney). These kids proved to everyone that we belonged and that we are one of the top teams in the state.
“It’s been a season of milestones for us. To win 22 games in a row, we never even got close to something like that. To win the CAL title, a division title, to get to this game here … We beat the (South Jersey) Group IV champion (Cherokee), the (South Jersey) Group III champion (Moorestown) and a lot of other really good teams. It was just an incredible season and I thought it was going to keep going.”
The lone rotation member to graduate this spring is starting point guard Jake McGonigle. White, Thweatt, Hopping, DaSean Lopez, Dave Zarfati and Ben Church will all return. Plus, the team will add talented Lower Cape May transfer Martin Anguelov.
There are no guarantees that Wildwood Catholic can be better next season. But just dare to bet against them.
“I think we are a team that is now so battle tested,” DeWeese said. “I think our kids are very confident in their ability. The accomplishments we’ve had throughout the course of this season should only continue to build their confidence.”