(Above video courtesy Mike Frankel/Jersey Sports Zone)
By BRIAN CUNNIFF
JACKSON — The Wildwood Catholic High School boys basketball team traveled far and wide to play the best competition it could find this season.
It was done in the hope that the experience gained would help the Crusaders return to the South Jersey Non-Public B title game and reverse last season’s crushing defeat.
That was accomplished.
Wildwood Catholic earned its first South Jersey title since 2007 behind a dominating performance at Jackson Liberty High School that saw the Crusaders lead from start to finish in an 80-67 victory over Rutgers Prep, which entered the game ranked fourth in the state and had been unbeaten against New Jersey teams entering the game.
Wildwood Catholic moves into the state championship game against Roselle Catholic, which edged Gill St. Bernard, 59-58, in the North Jersey title game. As of late Wednesday evening, the date, site and time of that contest had yet to be determined after first Rutgers University and later Phillipsburg High School each rendered their respective facilities unavailable in reaction to fears about the coronavirus.
Wildwood Catholic’s victory avenged last year’s difficult loss in the sectional title game, in which the Crusaders fell in overtime to eventual Tournament of Champions winner Ranney.
The Crusaders played their best half of the season over the opening two quarters against Rutgers Prep considering the stakes and the quality of the opponent. Wildwood Catholic ran out to an 18-3 lead to start the game, with dunks by Taj Thweat and Jahlil White, two impressive layups in traffic by Jacob Hopping, a pair of three-pointers by Martin Anguelov and a back-door layup by Tom Belansen highlighting the early explosion.
Wildwood Catholic took a 23-10 lead after the first quarter and held a 41-21 advantage at the half. The Crusaders (24-7) upped their lead to as high as 21 points on four separate occasions in the second half. Rutgers Prep (27-2) never got closer than 11 points after intermission, and that came with less than two minutes to play.
Thweatt, a senior forward headed to Division I West Virginia, cemented his status as one of the state’s top players by producing one of the best performances of his career. He finished with 28 points, 16 rebounds and four blocked shots. Many of his points came on a dazzling array of dunks. He punctuated his team’s victory with two highlight-reel jams in the fourth quarter. He first two-hand slammed a pass banked off the backboard by Anguelov. Then, with less than 30 seconds to go, Thweatt executed a massive windmill slam that brought the Crusader faithful to their feet.
Anguelov played one of his best games in a Crusader uniform and finished with 17 points. Hopping (12) and Temple-bound White (11) also each scored in double figures despite each fouling out in the fourth quarter.
Remarkably, the margin of victory should have been much higher. The Crusaders shot a putrid 14 for 35 from the free-throw line, including just 9 for 22 in the final quarter.
Sophomore Otega Oweh scored 27 points for Rutgers Prep, getting 26 of them in the second half. He shot 13 for 15 from the foul line. Wildwood Catholic held Rutgers Prep star Trey Patterson to just eight points, almost 13 below his average.
The teams combined to attempt 66 free throws in the game. Rutgers Prep scored 46 points in the second half despite making only 10 field goals in the half.