By BRIAN CUNNIFF
GALLOWAY — The stars did what they usually do for the Wildwood Catholic High School boy basketball team Saturday. A couple of role players, however, helped make the difference in the outcome.
Senior Blane Rossell was instrumental in a hellacious comeback in the fourth quarter and sophomore Jacob Hopping was the star of overtime as the Crusaders captured the Cape-Atlantic League championship in dramatic fashion, rallying to defeat Atlantic City, 63-57, in the title game in front of more than 2,300 fans at Richard Stockton University.
Wildwood Catholic (24-2), the second seed in the playoff tournament, won the title game for the second time in program history, the other coming in 2014.
Wildwood Catholic’s players stormed the court after the buzzer sounded, touching off a wild celebration at halfcourt, while the Crusader coaches hugged one another near the team’s bench. A large contingent of Wildwood Catholic fans gave the team a standing ovation.
In the late stages of regulation, Rossell forced two Atlantic City turnovers on the defensive end, made a huge three-point shot and fed Taj Thweatt for a layup — all in a two-minute span — to help Wildwood Catholic come back from a nine-point deficit to take a seven-point lead late in the game.
But top-seeded Atlantic City (22-4) stormed back as well, scoring seven points in the final 26 seconds of regulation. Nazim Derry sent the game to overtime with a pair of free throws with less than two seconds to play. Wildwood Catholic missed three of its last four free-throw attempts to open the door for the Vikings.
Hopping gave Wildwood Catholic the lead for good on the first possession of overtime. After alertly anticipating the path of the tapped ball to start the period to gain possession for his team, Hopping scored off an offensive rebound shortly thereafter. He then made 5 of 6 free throws later in the session. He scored seven of his nine points in overtime.
Caleb Fields posted 20 points, six rebounds and three steals and Thweatt added 10 points, a whopping 20 rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots before he fouled out late in regulation for Wildwood Catholic. Charles Fields was also in double figures with 13 points, all scored after halftime. And Jahlil White chipped in eight points, four blocks and three steals.
Ray Bethea posted 20 points and 15 rebounds and Derry added 19 points and eight rebounds for Atlantic City.
BASKETBALL SHORTS: Wildwood Catholic held Atlantic City without a field goal in the final period until Ramon Rodriguez and Derry each made three-pointers in the final 26 seconds. Atlantic City then scored just two points in overtime. … Wildwood Catholic shot only 18 for 33 from the foul line. … Wildwood Catholic forced the Vikings into 23 turnovers. The Crusaders had 14. … Wildwood Catholic outscored Atlantic City by 40-26 in the paint and got 12 points from its bench to the Vikings’ four. … Atlantic City shot 7 for 20 on three-point attempts. Wildwood Catholic was just 1 of 10. … Atlantic City’s Flash Morgan had a highlight-reel dunk to open the game’s scoring in the first quarter, violently throwing down a tomahawk slam over a Crusader defender.