By BRIAN CUNNIFF
NORTH WILDWOOD – The Wildwood Catholic Academy girls basketball team was in trouble.
The Crusaders trailed by eight at halftime and were without the services of its lone senior, Kimmy Casiello, due to a first-quarter wrist injury.
But as has been the case all season, Wildwood Catholic figured out a way to find success.
A 16-3 second-half run turned the game in their favor as the Crusaders beat Gloucester Catholic, 45-39, in a South Jersey Non-Public B semifinal Monday evening in front of a boisterous crowd in Sister Mary Ellen Ford Gymnasium.
The victory sends Wildwood Catholic to the South Jersey championship game for the first time since the late 1990s. The Crusaders will face powerful Rutgers Prep in the sectional title game Wednesday at Long Branch High School.
“You lose your senior point guard, your leader, your heart, in the middle of the biggest game of the season, you have to find a way to make it work and the girls did,” Wildwood Catholic coach Steve DiPatri said. “That’s kudos to the mental fortitude of this team.”
Casiello went down with the injury in the first quarter. Wildwood Catholic trailed 26-18 at halftime and was still down by seven at 32-25 midway through the third quarter.
That’s when the team’s furious rally began.
Ella McCabe scored seven points in the third quarter and Carly Murphy and Kaci Mikulski each added four as the Crusaders tied the score by the close of the period. They then held Gloucester Catholic without a point for the first six minutes of the fourth quarter in taking control of the game.
“We started becoming more confident offensively and defensively we really put a lot of pressure on the ball through our press and we did a great job of getting out to their shooters in the second half,” DiPatri said.
Wildwood Catholic got a big basket on a huge sequence early in the fourth quarter. Ava Vogdes claimed two offensive rebounds during the same possession, saving the ball inbounds near the sideline on the second. The ball found its way to Mikulski, who made a pull-up jumper along the baseline to give Wildwood Catholic a 39-35 lead with six minutes to play.
Mikulski, who moved to the point guard position after Casiello’s injury, finished with 15 points for Wildwood Catholic (23-5). McCabe added 10 and Vogdes chipped in eight.
The Crusaders will now face one of the best teams in the state in Rutgers Prep in the sectional title game.
“This is what you play for,” DiPatri said. “You play to get better every day and you play to go deep in the state tournament. We’ll be on the floor with a great team in Rutgers Prep. We’ve earned the right to be there. We’ve had a great season.”