By BRIAN CUNNIFF
WILDWOOD – A fairytale ending nearly occurred in the Wildwood High School gymnasium Thursday evening.
But fairy tales are made for Hollywood and not necessarily for high school basketball games.
Inspired by the performance of senior captain Ernie Troiano, who was playing on a severely sprained ankle, the Warriors rallied furiously over the final three minutes but ultimately suffered a 60-56 loss to Salem in a first-place battle in the Tri-County Classic Division.
Troiano, who injured the ankle just two days earlier in the first half of a win over Clayton and was initially thought to have suffered a serious injury, produced a career-high 25 points on 9-of-14 shooting, gathered seven rebounds and picked up four steals for the Warriors.
“Some tape, a brace and some ibuprofen and I felt alright,” Troiano said. “I’m always going to play hard. It doesn’t matter if I’m hurt or not. Everyone was telling me not to play. But I knew on Tuesday once (medical personnel) told me it was just a sprain (following an X-ray scan), I knew I was playing. I didn’t care how much it hurt.”
Facing a 10-point deficit midway through the fourth quarter, Wildwood rallied to cut Salem’s lead to two points at 50-48 following a Junior Hans three-pointer. But Salem’s Amari Smith scored consecutive baskets off offensive rebounds – Salem had 23 offensive rebounds in the game – and Zyahir Pickett added another basket to increase Salem’s lead to 56-48 with 1:10 to go.
Still, the Warriors didn’t go away. Troiano put the team on his back and scored eight points over the next 27 seconds to bring the Warriors within two at 58-56 with 9.8 seconds to go. But Salem’s Anthony Farmer – son of the head coach – made two free throws a second later to ice the Rams’ victory.
“Ernie definitely galvanized us,” Wildwood coach Scott McCracken said. “We needed him on the floor. He had 25. He rebounded the basketball. He’s just tough. His toughness is what Wildwood basketball is all about.”
Hans finished with 13 points for Wildwood (9-5 overall, 6-1 Tri-Co Classic). Dom Troiano, Ernie’s brother, added 10 points and eight rebounds while also drawing three offensive fouls.
In the end, Salem’s rebounding abilities were the difference. The Rams (12-3, 6-0), who’ve won 12 straight after starting the season with three straight losses, out-rebounded Wildwood by 45-21.
“The rebounds – offensive rebounds, especially – hurt us,” McCracken said. “They did a good job rebounding the ball. They’re a big team, an athletic team. Our guys did the best they could but they really hurt us on the boards.”
Farmer, Smith and Pickett each sank 12 points for Salem. Farmer had all 12 of his points after halftime. Smith had 10 rebounds.