By BRIAN CUNNIFF
WILDWOOD — When Winter Favre walked to the free-throw line with 10 seconds to play, “MVP!” chants cascaded down from the Wildwood High School student section in the gymnasium’s southwest corner.
The chant was certainly on point.
Favre, a senior guard/forward, sank a game-high 21 points and made countless other critical plays as the Lady Warriors outlasted Woodbury, 56-51, in the first round of the South Jersey Invitational Basketball Tournament.
Wildwood moves on to play high-powered Bishop Eustace in the second round of the tournament on Saturday, Feb. 1.
The contest — a matchup of two of the top teams in South Jersey Group I and one that figures to have major ramifications in state playoff seeding — was spirited throughout, certainly like a playoff atmosphere.
Wildwood (8-1) took the lead for good thanks to a 21-4 run that spanned the last few minutes of the second quarter and the first few minutes of the third.
The highlight of the run came early in the third quarter. After getting fouled while shooting a three-pointer, Wildwood’s Leah Benichou made the first two free throws two but missed the third. Favre rebounded the miss, though, and banked a short jumper into the basket for a four-point sequence that swelled Wildwood’s lead to 38-23.
Woodbury (7-2) didn’t go away, though. The Thundering Herd closed the third quarter on a 9-4 spurt, then scored seven of the first eight points in the fourth quarter to draw to within four at 43-39. Multiple baskets by Nyasia Clark (16 points) and Keisha Pierce (11 points) fueled Woodbury’s surge.
But Wildwood’s Gabby Keoghan scored a critical layup and Benichou, who finished with 11 points, later hit a huge three-pointer to keep Woodbury from drawing closer. Freshman Maya Benichou then basically sealed the victory with a basket while being fouled with 33 seconds left to that increased Wildwood’s lead to 55-49.
In addition to her 21 points Favre finished with seven rebounds, four assists and two steals. She also defended well in the post against a tall Woodbury front line. And she made the game’s biggest defensive play when she drew a charge against a driving Woodbury guard in the final minute.
Wildwood overcame a bit of adversity to get the win. Starting point guard Imene Fathi sat out nearly the entire second quarter after picking up her third foul on Woodbury’s second possession of the period. And starting forward Jenna Hans — by far Wildwood’s tallest player at 5-8 — missed the last 1 ½ quarters of the game after twisting her ankle.
But thanks to just enough team-wide composure in the final quarter and big plays from the MVP, Wildwood was able to secure its biggest victory of the season to date.