By BRIAN CUNNIFF
WILDWOOD — Wildwood High School is the smallest school in the Tri-County Conference by enrollment.
The school’s boys basketball team, however, is proving it can compete — and beat — the bigger schools in the conference, even the most talented ones.
In one of the most entertaining games in recent memory in the Warrior gymnasium, Wildwood came back from a seven-point third-quarter deficit to beat highly-regarded Timber Creek, 60-56, Wednesday to advance to the championship game of the first-ever Tri-County Conference Tournament.
“We’re fortunate to have some pretty good players,” Wildwood coach Scott McCracken said. “We have gritty, tough kids, and that’s why we’re in the position we’re in.”
Wildwood, the No. 2 seed in the tournament, will host Friday’s conference championship game against Overbrook, after the fourth-seeded Rams upset top-seeded and previously unbeaten Deptford in the other semifinal, 67-62.
Friday’s game is scheduled for a 7 p.m. tip. The contest will air live on 98.7 The Coast radio, with a live video stream at CoastSportsToday.com.
“It’s a great feeling — a great, wonderful feeling,” said Wildwood junior forward Omarian McNeal, who posted 19 points and 15 rebounds in the win.
The lead changed hands numerous times in the fourth quarter. Senior guard Diante Miles, who scored Wildwood’s final nine points, made a floater in the lane with 40 seconds remaining to give the Warriors the lead for good at 57-56 with 40 seconds to play.
Wildwood defended well on Timber Creek’s next possession, forcing a tough 18-foot jump shot that missed the mark. The Warriors rebounded and outleted to Miles, who made a layup and was fouled with 1.5 seconds to go. Miles sank the free throw to clinch the victory.
“That’s senior leadership,” McCracken said. “Diante and Seamus (Fynes), our two senior (starters), they were key for us. We needed Omarian to play tough and rebound for us and he did. But Seamus and Diante were huge for us.”
Miles finished with a game-high 23 points to go along with four steals. Fynes was also in double figures with 12 points and added six rebounds and five assists.
This, however, was a total team effort against a Timber Creek team that had won 12 straight games and was taller than Wildwood at nearly every position on the floor. The Warriors limited the Chargers to eight points in the fourth quarter through tenacious halfcourt defense.
“I think our halfcourt defense was really good in the fourth quarter, but honestly, I thought we did a good job with it all night,” McCracken said. “We struggled offensively and a lot of that was because they were so long. .. But our kids were just gritty. We played tough.”
McCracken credited starting guard Ernie Troiano and substitutes Miguel Claudio and Greg Mitchell with playing stingy defense throughout and making a few key hustle plays.
“We did a lot of small things well and that’s because of Miguel and Greg off the bench, and then Ernie, the way he plays defense, he’s the type of kid you just don’t want to play against,” McCracken said.
McNeal was particularly effective against Timber Creek star Austin Green, who was limited to 14 points despite entering the game averaging 27 points per outing.
“I was trying to get in his head and play aggressive,” McNeal said. “I had to go in there and play hard.”
Wildwood (13-1) will look to play hard one last time and become the winners of the inaugural tournament on Friday.