By BRIAN CUNNIFF
WILDWOOD — The Wildwood Catholic High School boys basketball team is one of the most skilled clubs in the region.
But the Crusaders needed more than skill to win their latest game. This time they also used effort, heart and grit.
Wildwood Catholic outlasted an excellent Mervo Tech (Md.) team, 58-54 in overtime, to win the Frank McAlarnen Memorial Boys Bracket title at the Boardwalk Basketball Classic late Saturday evening.
A basket by Jahlil White with 2 minutes, 49 seconds, to play in the extra period opened the scoring in overtime and gave Wildwood Catholic (4-0) the lead for good.
Taj Thweatt and David Zarfati each went on to make a pair of critical free throws. And Ben Church, after coming up with a massive defensive rebound in the final seconds, clinched the victory with a foul shot with two seconds to play.
White, a Temple signee who has been battling lingering knee soreness stemming from the aftereffects of meniscus surgery over the summer, played his best game of the young season to date. He tallied 20 points, five rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots.
But White was just one of the heroes for the Crusaders in this one.
Thweatt added 13 points, seven rebounds and six blocked shots and protected the rim with vigor against a Mervo team that featured a 6-10 center in Elijah Rantin and a highly skilled 6-5 forward in Will Thomas. Thomas led Mervo with 20 points and 13 rebounds.
Wildwood Catholic’s Jacob Hopping saved his best play for the second half. Hopping, an above average shooter who’s yet to find his stroke this season, scored 11 of his 12 points in the second half.
Zarfati was also in double figures with 10 points.
Wildwood Catholic led 5-0 to start the game but then found itself trailing by nine at 16-7 after Mervo (5-2) went on a 14-2 run. But the Crusaders closed the half on a 13-5 run to get to within a point at halftime, culminating with Zarfati’s layup just ahead of the second-quarter buzzer.
Wildwood Catholic went on to establish the largest lead of the game by either team at 45-35 when Thweatt scored off an offensive rebound with 4:04 to play.
But Mervo closed regulation with a 14-4 run and even had a chance to win the game in the final seconds. But White blocked a three-point attempt with three seconds to play and Thweatt nearly won it on a near-miraculous heave from three-quarter court that hit and backboard and rim as time expired.
The Crusaders then went on to control the overtime period.
Wildwood Catholic shot 23 for 29 from the foul line (79. 3 percent). Mervo was just 13 for 25 (52 percent).
Wildwood Catholic won despite being plagued with severe foul trouble. DaSean Lopez fouled out in regulation, Thweatt fouled out late in overtime and White played the fourth quarter and overtime with three fouls.
Wildwood Catholic faces another talented foe in its next game. The Crusaders will play Archbishop Wood of the Philadelphia Catholic League on Monday at a showcase event at Cherry Hill East High School.