By BRIAN CUNNIFF
ABSECON — Taj Thweatt has a habit of playing his best in big games.
That was never more evident on Sunday at the Seagull Classic at Holy Spirit High School.
Thweatt, a 6-7 junior forward for the Wildwood Catholic High School boys basketball team, turned in a performance for the ages as the Crusaders stunned the Patrick School, which went into the game ranked fourth in the state.
Thweatt poured in 30 points, claimed 13 rebounds, blocked three shots and altered numerous others to lead Wildwood Catholic to a dominating 56-42 victory, a result certain to send shockwaves through the state’s high school basketball community.
“Taj rises to the occasion,” Wildwood Catholic coach Dave DeWeese said. “He wants to play in games like this. We weren’t very happy with his performance Thursday night (in a 49-41 win over Cape May Tech) and we got on him a little bit. But when we face teams like this, I always know we’re going to get his best.”
Although the size of the crowd was mitigated by the Eagles playing an NFL playoff game at virtually the same time, those in attendance were left shaking their heads at the brilliant performance by the Crusaders (8-1) against one of the state’s premier programs.
There has been no greater regular-season victory in the history of Wildwood Catholic’s program.
“To beat a program like that is incredible,” DeWeese said. “The kids deserved it. They worked hard for it.”
For Wildwood Catholic, which went into the game ranked 15th in New Jersey, it’s a victory that will certainly resonate around the state.
“More importantly, it’s about how we feel about ourselves,” DeWeese said. “I think it tells our kids we can play with anybody and we can beat anybody. It tells us there’s not a team on our schedule that we can’t challenge and compete with. This is a huge confidence builder.”
Thweatt, who has already received college scholarship offers from Temple and Seton Hall and others, dominated the paint. On the offensive end, he made 11-of-18 shots from the floor. Four of his field goals came on thunderous dunks. And on the defensive end, Thweatt’s presence around the rim simply didn’t allow the Celtics many open looks near the basket. It also allowed the Crusaders to extend a very effective 2-3 matchup zone that forced the Patrick School into a 3-for-20 shooting effort from three-point range (15 percent).
Trailing by a point after one quarter, Wildwood Catholic went on a 16-2 run over the course of the second quarter to take a 23-10 lead at the half. The Patrick School eventually cut the Crusader advantage to nine at 30-21 late in the third quarter, but Wildwood Catholic then reeled off 10 straight points to post its largest lead at 41-21 early in the fourth. The Celtics got to within 10 around the three-minute mark, but Wildwood Catholic did enough in the final few minutes to make sure the Patrick School couldn’t finish off an unlikely comeback.
“We knew in the second half we would have four or five runs by them,” DeWeese said. “We had a couple shaky spots, where we had some bad shot selection and a couple turnovers, but we were always able to come back and withstand the run and then extend the lead again, which a real credit to our kids.”
Jahlil White added 18 points on 7-for-15 shooting for Wildwood Catholic. He also had seven rebounds.
All five of Wildwood Catholic’s starters had at least five rebounds. The Crusaders out-rebounded the Patrick School by 44-30.
Alejandro Vazquez scored 21 points to lead the Patrick School (6-3). No other Celtic player scored more than seven points.