GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - Gina Lewis caught a pass and spun to her left into the paint.
The Holy Spirit High School senior took a gutsy jump shot over the outstretched arms of Sacred Heart's Kennedy Johnson. It swished through the net with 2.1 seconds left on the clock.
The Spartans' bench jumped and cheered. The packed Holy Spirit stands stomped and roared. Seconds later, the Spartans and their fans came together to celebrate.
Holy Spirit defeated Sacred Heart 39-38 to win the Cape-Atlantic League girls basketball championship at Richard Stockton College on Saturday. Lewis, a 6-foot forward, led the third-seeded Spartans with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Lewis said her mind went blank when she put up the game-winning shot.
"I'm glad nothing went through my head because if I would have thought about it, I would have missed it," she said.
It was a thrilling end to an exciting game. The lead changed five times before Sacred Heart, the No. 5 seed, built an eight-point lead heading into the fourth quarter.
The Spartans (20-5), No. 11 in The Press Elite 11, showed no signs of being frantic despite the deficit. They trailed Cedar Creek by 10 in the fourth quarter of the semifinals before rallying for a six-point win.
Holy Spirit slowly set its offense and never rushed. Contested shots finally began to fall for the Spartans. Sacred Heart committed a few costly errors.
Brianne Long hit a long two-point shot from the left wing, her only basket of the game, to bring the Spartans within a point with 35.8 seconds to play. Junior guard Summer Crilley forced a Lions' turnover to give Holy Spirit possession with 28.1 left on the clock.
Holy Spirit scrambled to run a high-low offensive set. The Lions broke it up, but the Spartans reset and Garofalo (eight points, two assists, two steals) dished the ball to Lewis.
"I would have been fine with any one of the five on the floor taking the last shot," Holy Spirit coach Dennis Smith said. "With Gina, we talked about as soon as go to make that move (to the basket), make it right away. Don't even think about it, just turn and go to the basket. That's what she did, and it was all net."
Holy Spirit survived phenomenal efforts by Sacred Heart's leaders, senior Mandy Buirch and junior Johnson. Buirch, a 5-9 guard had 14 points and was 8-for-8 from the foul line. The 6-2 Johnson scored 13 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
Defensively, Buirch hounded Crilley, the Spartans' leading scorer, who was limited to seven points.
The Lions contained what can be an explosive Holy Spirit offense. The Spartans were held under 40 points after averaging 65.5 in the CAL tournament.
Smith credited the leadership of his seniors - Lewis, Garofalo and Annie Wenz, who had nine points and seven rebounds despite sitting the third quarter in foul trouble. A grueling schedule has the Spartans accustomed to playing tough opponents.
"We've played enough good teams that in these pressure-cooker-type situations we could excel and that's what we did," he said.
It was a surprising matchup to see in the championship game. Cedar Creek was favored over Holy Spirit in the semifinals. Sacred Heart upset Middle Township and Ocean City in the first two rounds.
No one expected the Lions to be in position for back-to-back titles. But Sacred Heart proved itself a contender.
"Their team gets better week after week," Smith said. "(Lions coach Steve DiPatri) does such a great job. Once we learned they were in the tournament, I said, 'You can't sleep on Sacred Heart.' "
For the second year in a row, Sacred Heart played in a thriller for the CAL title. The Lions won by one point against Ocean City last year.
Just like in that game, a basket in the final seconds decided the winner.
"(Spectators) got their money's worth. … It was just a great high school basketball game," DiPatri said. "It came down to a broken play and a last-second shot by a player up against her cousin."
There was lots of buzz before the game about Lewis and Johnson, who are family but also best friends. The two haven't played against each other since middle school.
Neither disappointed. They played each other fiercely as competitors, then hugged after the game and watched the boys championship between Atlantic City and Middle Township together.
Before meeting up with Johnson after the game, Lewis admired the trophy awarded to Holy Spirit and thought about the shot she made to help them clinch it.
"It's the greatest feeling. I think this is the best I've felt all season," Lewis said. "To make that last shot and know that I stepped up and didn't let my team down feels great."
Contact Brittany Grugan:
Sacred Heart 6 14 11 7-38
Holy Spirit 7 12 4 16-39
SH-Buirch 2 8-8 14, Carter 1 3-6 5, Smith 2 0-0 4, Ferrucci 0 0-0 0, Johnson 5 4-4 14. Totals-10 7-15 38.
HS-Garofalo 3 1-1 8, Crilley 3 1-4 7, Wenz 4 1-3 9, Lewis 5 3-3 13, Long 1 0-0 2. Totals-16 6-11 39.
3-pointers-Buirch (2), Johnson SH; Garofalo HS.
Records-Sacred Heart 19-7; Holy Spirit 20-5.
© 2014 pressofAtlanticCity.com