By BRIAN CUNNIFF
WILDWOOD — On March 5, 2019, the Wildwood High School boys basketball team suffered one of the most heartbreaking losses in program history.
Exactly two years to the day later, the Warriors posted one of sweetest victories in program history.
Battling back from a 16-4 deficit to start the game, Wildwood rebounded to beat Overbrook, 67-58, to win the inaugural Tri-County Conference championship game on Friday.
“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through as a coach — 2 minutes, 34 seconds left, up seven and lose the game,” said Wildwood coach Scott McCraken, referring to Wildwood’s loss to Clayton in the 2019 South Jersey Group I title game. “I kept reminding the kids that we had a chance to avenge that. It meant a lot just to make it here to this game, and now to win it …”
This was the first season the Tri-County Conference held a postseason tournament. The league put the event in place after the COVID-19 pandemic reduced the regular season to 15 games and canceled the state playoffs.
Wildwood (14-1) is the smallest school by enrollment in the 21-team league. The Warriors, seeded second, beat No. 7 Highland, one of the larger Group II schools in South Jersey, and No. 3 Timber Creek, a Group III school, to reach the final. They then knocked off the fourth-seeded Rams, a Group I school that had upset top-seeded and previously unbeaten Deptford, a Group III school, in the semifinal round.
“Before the game, I put up the number ‘42’ on the board because it’s been 42 years since we won a South Jersey (title),” McCracken said. “This wasn’t a South Jersey title, but this was a really special tournament the Tri-County Conference put together. We played bigger schools and got some wins to get here. Our kids did a great job in this tournament and this means a lot to everyone involved in our program.”
Overbook (13-2) made a bunch of early shots and Wildwood had trouble getting going at the start of the game as the Rams raced out to a 12-point first-quarter lead. But Wildwood finished the period on a 15-6 spurt to close to within four at 23-19 at the end of the quarter as Diante Miles and Seamus Fynes each made a three-pointer and a layup to highlight the run. Junior forward Omarian McNeal then scored eight points in the second quarter as Wildwood took a 35-34 lead at the half.
“It was grit and determination by our kids,” McCracken said. “I don’t think any of us thought we were out of the game. We knew if we got stops we could get back in it. Then Diante makes a couple shots, Omarian and Seamus get it going and we’re back in business.
“After coming out flat and not playing well, we really battled to come back and go up one at halftime. So we’re up one at halftime and I didn’t think we had played that well. I told the kids in the locker room that we got here by defending and sharing the ball and we did that much better in the second half.”
McNeal, who finished with 24 points and 18 rebounds, scored 11 points and dominated the paint in the third quarter to help Wildwood go ahead by six at 53-47 heading in the fourth. Wildwood eventually led by as many as 11 points in the final minute.
After allowing Damian Rawls to score 17 first-half points, Wildwood held Overbrook’s leading scorer to zero field goals and just two points after halftime.
“That’s Miguel Claudio and Ernie Troiano,” McCraken said. “Great job by those two.”
Miles tied McNeal for game-high in scoring with 24 points and also posted five steals. Fynes added 16 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and five steals.
In the final seconds, numerous Wildwood players reached down and slapped the Warrior logo at center court before running to the bench as they were removed from the game. The final buzzer touched off a wild celebration among the players and coaches near the Wildwood bench. Miles and Fynes — Wildwood’s two senior starters — had tears in their eyes as they fell to the floor in ecstasy at the realization of finishing their careers with a victory and a championship on their home court.
“Job finally finished,” McNeal said with a smile. “This is what we worked for all season from the first day of practice. All the sweat we put in here … It’s a great feeling to win a championship.”
Wildwood finished the season on a 14-game winning streak after losing its opener by two points at Penns Grove.
“I love coaching here and I love these kids,” McCracken said. “I thought before the year we were a good team. We dropped the first game and then we took off.”
And didn’t land until securing a championship.