By BRIAN CUNNIFF
NORTH WILDWOOD — The Wildwood Catholic and Middle Township high school girls basketball teams traded haymakers Wednesday evening.
The Crusaders finally got the knockout punch to win.
Gabby Turco’s foul-line jump shot with 14.6 seconds to play accounted for the go-ahead basket and the Crusader defense forced a near-impossible shot by Middle at the buzzer as Wildwood Catholic came away with a 51-49 victory in a game featuring the top two teams in the Cape-Atlantic United Conference.
“Just a classic Wildwood Catholic-Middle Township game that comes down to the end,” Wildwood Catholic coach Steve DiPatri said. “Nobody’s fooling anybody. We know their stuff and they know our stuff. It’s just a matter of who executes at the end of the game and fortunately we did.”
For Wildwood Catholic, the victory snapped a five-game losing streak to Middle. The Crusaders’ last win over their rival came on Jan. 27, 2017.
“Our motto all week before the game was, ‘Seize the moment,’” DiPatri said. “We did what we had to do at the end to win the game.”
The win moves Wildwood Catholic (13-2 overall, 4-1 CAL United) into a tie in the loss column with Middle (11-4 overall, 6-1 CAL United). The teams have split their two contests, Middle winning by three points on its home floor in early January.
The result also creates havoc in the race for next month’s Cape-Atlantic League playoff tournament. Middle would have all but locked up the top seed with a victory. Wildwood Catholic’s win now creates some doubt with Mainland, the Crusaders, Middle and Ocean City all in the mix for the first seed.
Middle, behind one of the best games in the stellar career of senior guard Kira Sides, held a 41-33 lead early in the fourth quarter, only to see the Crusaders storm back. Catholic went on an 11-2 run to take a one-point lead, highlighted by a pair of three-point baskets by Turco and one by Kimmy Casiello.
“We gained our composure and showed the resiliency we needed,” DiPatri said.
Kate Herlihy scored to give Middle the lead again and Sides sank a pair of free throws to put Middle ahead, 47-44. But Marianna Papazoglou made two foul shots, Middle missed two free throws and Papazoglou converted a three-point play to give Catholic a two-point lead with 46 seconds left.
Herlihy made two foul shots with 26 seconds left to tie the score, before Turco made her winning basket from the top of the lane. Middle could only get off an off-balance runner that missed as time expired.
“We had our chances,” Middle coach John Leahy said. “We missed some free throws and we turned the ball over a couple times right after we got a couple rebounds secured.
“At the end of the day, this game always seems to come down to who executes better down the stretch. Over the last few possessions, we didn’t. They did and they won the game.”
Turco scored 20 points to lead Wildwood Catholic, getting 10 of them in the final quarter. Papazoglou chipped in 16 and Casiello netted 13.
The loss overshadowed a wonderful performance by Sides, who poured in a game-high 33 points. She made five three-pointers and shot 6 for 6 from the foul line. She scored 17 points in the second quarter alone, helping Middle battle back from an 11-point deficit early in the second quarter to trail by just three at halftime. Sides scored 22 of Middle’s 27 first-half points.
“Kira was unbelievable,” Leahy said. “She carried us. That was probably one of the most under control games she’s ever played. She got good looks and she really knocked them down. No doubt, she was phenomenal.”
Herlihy added 13 points for Middle.