By BRIAN CUNNIFF
NORTH WILDWOOD — Marianna Papazoglou saved the best for last.
The senior from the Wildwood Catholic Academy girls basketball team turned in one of the best performances of her storied career Saturday afternoon.
Not only did that performance lead to a Crusader victory, but it also resulted in Papazoglou breaking a 32-year-old program record.
Papazouglou poured in 37 points, including 10 in overtime, as Wildwood Catholic outlasted Life Center Academy, 68-59, on Senior Day in the Sister Mary Mary Ellen Ford Gymnasium Saturday afternoon.
Her first basket of the extra period allowed Papazoglou to pass 1990 graduate Carol “Budy” Blum as the program’s all-time leading scorer. After Papazoglou banked in a shot in the lane for the milestone basket, the game was stopped for a short emotional ceremony. Blum was in attendance to share in the moment with Papazoglou.
“You couldn’t have scripted this any better than what we saw today,” Wildwood Catholic coach Steve DiPatri said. “We beat a great team. Life Center has a lot of talented players. We came in with a tall task and came out and executed our game plan and got the win and ‘Mar’ broke an incredible long-standing record.”
Papazoglou, who needed 29 points entering the game to break Blum’s scoring record of 1,759 points, finished her career with 1,768 points.
Ironically, she nearly didn’t get the chance. Teammate Alyia Gray-Rivera was fouled with six seconds to play in regulation but missed the front end of a one-and-one. Had Gray-Rivera made that free throw, the game most likely would have ended in regulation with Papazoglou one point short of tying Blum’s record.
Given a second chance, Papazoglou took advantage, breaking the record with the first basket of overtime. She added another basket in the lane, a three-pointer and three free throws to help seal the victory.
Ahead by a point at the half, Life Center Academy (7-10), an independent program that plays a rather ambitious schedule, got a pair of three-pointers from Jaylin Vandunk early in the third quarter to take its largest lead of the game at 37-30. The Warriors also resorted to an effective box-and-one defense that limited touches by Papazoglou, who had scored 15 first-half points.
But Kimmy Casiello went on to sink two of her four three-pointers in the period, Gray-Rivera made one and Lauren McCallion hit a mid-range jump shot as Wildwood Catholic scored 11 straight points to take a four-point lead.
Knocking down outside shots was “a huge lift to our team,” DiPatri said. “At first, when they were playing the junk defense, it was like, what are we doing? Then we made a couple adjustments and the kids started banging down threes. I’ve felt all season that when we get everyone to score that we can beat anybody and we saw that today.”
The teams battled to the finish from that point, with neither team leading by more than four points through the close of regulation. Papazoglou scored all nine of Wildwood Catholic’s points in the fourth quarter. Wildwood Catholic also caught a break when Timaya Lewis-Eutsey, who led LCA with 19 points, fouled out late in regulation.
That set the stage for overtime. Papazoglou played the final four minutes of her career with conviction, leading the Crusaders to a sweet victory in their season finale.
At the final buzzer, Wildwood Catholic’s players celebrated on the court near their bench. Some of the players, the seniors in particular, had tears in their eyes as their careers ended with a victory on their home court, all while their leader set an impressive program record.
Papazoglou also contributed 14 rebounds. Casiello added 18 points.
In addition to Papazoglou, Gray-Rivera, Lauren McCallion and Riley Kane each played the final games of their high school careers.
Wildwood Catholic finished the pandemic-shorted season at 9-1.
“It was a season that was certainly filled with a lot of changes and reactions to events,” DiPatri said. “But every day, I felt like our kids came in and gave the best they possibly could. As a coach, that’s all I can ask. I’m pleased with how we finished.”