By BRIAN CUNNIFF
OCEAN CITY — The Wildwood Catholic High School girls basketball team was depesteraly attempting to commit a foul in order to stop the clock.
But one of the best high school players in the country made the most important pass of the game.
McDonald’s All-American Kylee Watson, sensing the Wildwood Catholic defense racing toward her, whipped a pass from near the top of the key to wide-open teammate Cadence Fitzgerald, whose layup with less than 20 seconds to play sealed Mainland’s 42-40 win over the Crusaders in a Cape-Atlantic League semifinal Thursday at Ocean City High School.
Mainland (18-5), the No. 4 seed in the tournament, advances to play No. 3 Atlantic City in Saturday’s title game at 12 noon at Richard Stockton University. Atlantic City was a 40-33 winner over No. 2 Ocean City in the other semifinal.
Fitzgerald’s bucket gave Mainland a five-point lead. Wildwood Catholic’s Marianna Papazoglou made a three-pointer with one second remaining to set the final score.
“Our kids showed a lot of character and a lot of grit,” Wildwood Catholic coach Steve DiPatri said. “We’ve focused all year on bringing that to every game. I’m really proud of them for their effort.”
Wildwood Catholic raced out to a 9-2 lead to start the game, only to see Mainland reel off an incredible 17-0 run to take a 19-9 lead late in the second quarter. Wildwood Catholic went more than 10 minutes of game time without scoring a point. It was the second time in the CAL playoff tournament that Mainland faced a significant early deficit. The Mustangs fell behind Middle Township, 12-3, in their quarterfinal game before rallying for a 42-36 win.
“Whatever issues there were on offense, I told our girls in the locker room that they defended great all night,” Mainland coach Scott Betson said. “We have tough kids. There’s a certain poise this group has where (an early deficit) doesn’t rattle them. They know to just chip away at it.”
The Crusaders rallied late in the third quarter. Kimmy Casiello made back-to-back baskets before Gabby Turco banked in a 30-foot three-point shot prior to the buzzer to tie the game at 36-36 going into the final period.
“I thought things were going really well for us, but then when they ripped off that seven-point run at the the end of the third, that was huge,” Betson said. “That changed the whole tenor of the game. It turned it into a real nailbiter that could have gone either way.”
The teams traded baskets early in the quarter before the teams’ two defenses took over, as neither team scored for more than three minutes. Fitzgerald then gave Mainland the lead for good with a layup off a Wildwood Catholic turnover with three minutes to play.
Fitzgerald scored six of Mainland’s points in the final quarter and finished with a team-high 14 points.
Watson, limited a bit physically after colliding with a Wildwood Catholic player late in the second quarter, added nine points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots. She was held nine points below her scoring average, thanks in part to tenacious defense by Papazoglou.
“I thought ‘Mar’ did a great job on her,” Wildwood Catholic coach Steve DiPatri said. “Overall, defensively I thought we did what we wanted to do for the most part. I thought if we closed down in the post just a little bit better in the third and fourth quarters it might have turned it for us but other than that our defense was excellent.”
Papazoglou led Wildwood Catholic with 15 points. Turco added 14 points, six rebounds and five steals.
“I’m super proud of our defensive effort,” Betson said. “Those two kids are great players. They can flat-out score.”
Mainland will attempt to win its second CAL title game on Saturday. The Mustangs beat Ocean City, 41-39, in the 2018 game. Atlantic City will also try for its second, the Vikings’ other CAL championship coming in 2010 behind a 53-50 victory over Holy Spirit.