By BRIAN CUNNIFF
CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — The Middle Township High School boys basketball team came oh-so-close to a major upset within the Cape-Atlantic League.
But in the end, the Panthers simply couldn’t make one more needed play.
St. Joseph hung on at the finish for a 53-49 victory over Middle Wednesday in a CAL United Conference game that was close throughout and produced a wild final minute.
It was a tremendous response by Middle (2-6), which had lost by 45 points to Wildwood Catholic only two nights earlier.
“It’s very encouraging, the way we reacted,” Middle coach Tom Feraco said after the game. “We just have a lot of hard-working kids without a lot of experience.”
A Charlie McNeal three-pointer with 46 seconds to play brought Middle to within two at 50-48.
Middle fouled on the next St. Joseph possession, but a Wildcat player was whistled for a technical foul for pushing a Middle player following the play. St. Joe freshman Arnaldo Rodriguez came off the bench to sink both ends of the one-and-one before Middle’s Matt Marino made one of the two technical free throws. But Middle never scored again, with St. Joe’s Jada Byers sealing the game with a free throw with five seconds to go.
“Give (Rodriguez) credit,” Feraco said. “He basically didn’t play all game and comes off the bench and makes two big shots for them.”
Middle stayed in the game thanks to grit, some solid defense, timely offensive rebounding and outside shooting by Marino.
Marino made five three-pointers in the game, including three in the third quarter when Middle went ahead by as many as four points early in the quarter after trailing by two at halftime. He finished with a team-high 18 points. Miles Sapp (14 points) and Donald Hatcher (10 points) also scored quite a few baskets right around the rim, a few coming off offensive rebounds.
“I love the effort. I applaud our effort,” Feraco said. “The kids played so hard. I actually love the situation we’re in. These kids are getting their opportunities and I’m glad I have the opportunity to coach such a great group of kids.”
Middle held St. Joe leading scorer Marcus Pierce to five points. Pierce, who played at Middle Township last season, entered the game averaging 20 points per contest.
“Give Charlie McNeal credit,” Feraco said. “He did a great job on Pierce.”
Sophomore Daniel Skillings netted a game-high 20 points for St. Joseph (5-1). Jordan Stafford added 11.
The game against St. Joseph continued a difficult stretch of games against top competition for Middle. The Panthers are scheduled to play Oakcrest, Pleasantville, Cape May Tech, Buena and Camden Tech over their next five games.
“Winning a game like this could have absolutely helped us turn the corner,” Feraco said. “But now we have a stretch of games that are a little more manageable. These are all games coming up we can win. But we also could lose them all, too. Hopefully we’ll play well during this upcoming stretch.”