By BRIAN CUNNIFF
ERMA — The fans and players celebrated as if the Lower Cape May Regional High School boys basketball team had won a playoff game Wednesday evening.
In a way, they did.
Lower Cape May earned the eighth and final berth into the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament with a thrilling 60-55 victory over Mainland.
The Caper Tigers grabbed the last slot in the tournament after the league’s seeding committee announced earlier in the day that Lower would qualify for the event with a victory over the Mustangs. Had the Tigers lost the game, Holy Spirit would have been given the playoff berth.
“It was like a playoff game — win or go home,” said Lower Cape May sophomore Jordan Pierce, who hit two critical three-point shots in the overtime period.
Lower Cape May, which had never before qualified for the tournament, will face top-seeded Wildwood Catholic on Friday in the opening round.
“This is the first time Lower’s ever been in it, so we’re excited to play Catholic,” Pierce said. “We know they’re the best team in South Jersey but we’d like to try to prove ourselves a little against them. We’ll see if we can put up a fight.”
Lower held a 42-33 lead early in the fourth quarter, only to see Mainland rally with a 15-5 surge to take a one-point lead with a little more than two minutes left. Pierce hit a three-pointer to give Lower the lead again with 1:08 to go. Mainland’s Joe Massari then scored while being fouled to tie the game and Jake Cook was fouled after getting the offensive rebound of Massari’s free-throw miss and went on to make both ends of a one-and-one to give the Mustangs a 52-50 lead. Lower’s Ronnie Jackson sent the game to overtime with two free throws with 16 seconds to go.
In overtime, Mainland hit a free throw to take a one-point lead but Pierce responded with a three-pointer with 2:55 remaining. After Mainland tied the game again on a basket with 1:10 to go, Pierce knocked down another three-pointer with 49 seconds to go to give Lower the lead for good at 58-55. Jackson added a pair of free throws with 13 seconds left to ice the game.
“I was just open,” Pierce said. “I knew someone had to make a shot and I was the one in the right place at the right time.”
Jackson finished with 18 points, Dave Durham tallied 16 points off the bench and Pierce added 13 points for Lower, which snapped a three-game losing streak and finished the regular season at 16-7 overall, 8-4 in CAL National games.
For Lower, the win also came one game after one of its poorest showings of the season in a 65-47 loss to Ocean City on Monday.
“When we got to school this morning, we didn’t think we had a chance at the playoff so we were just coming out to prove to ourselves and other people that we’re still a good team,” Pierce said. “I think we did that.”
Lower’s win, coupled with Ocean City’s overtime victory over Cedar Creek, gave Ocean City (18-3, 10-2) the National Conference championship.
Mainland, which got 17 points from Massari and 14 points from Cook, finished the regular season at 18-6, 9-3.
Mainland played much of the game without one of its top players. Angelo Barron was injured early in the second quarter and did not return.
Mainland is the No. 7 seed in the CAL Tournament. The Mustangs will travel to No. 2 St. Augustine for a first-round game on Friday.
(98.7 The Coast high school basketball broadcaster Buddy Tarbotton contributed to this report.)