Sa'eed Nelson helps lift Hermits over Mustangs

Justyn Mutts, right, drives to the basket for St. Augustine Prep as Mainland Regional High School’s Darius Jerkins defends during their Cape-Atlantic League tournament quarterfinal game Monday night in Buena Vista Township. The Hermits won to advance to Thursday’s semifinals. They will play Atlantic City in Hammonton.

Press photo by Dave Griffin

BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP - Darius Jerkins of the Mainland Regional High School boys basketball team stands 6-foot-5.

Sa'eed Nelson of St. Augustine Prep is 5-8.

The two wowed a packed St. Augustine gym and made play after play Monday night.

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Nelson just made one more.

The sophomore point guard scored 23 points to lead the second-seeded Hermits to a 57-49 win over seventh-seeded Mainland in a Cape-Atlantic League quarterfinal game. St. Augustine (21-3) will play third-seeded Atlantic City in a semifinal at 5 p.m. Thursday at Hammonton. Jerkins scored 22 points.

"This is a big win," Nelson said. "We knew Mainland was going to come out with everything they had."

The Hermits took control of a tied game with a 8-2 run that gave them a 55-49 lead with 1 minute, 15 seconds left. Nelson sank a key 3-pointer, scored five points and had an assist during the decisive stretch.

"The three was unbelievable," Hermits coach Paul Rodio said. "We have a lot of confidence in (Nelson) to take those kind of shots, and it just wasn't that shot. He led us down the stretch."

Fans filled the bleachers to watch the quarterfinal. Some fans thought Mainland (13-10) because of its size had a chance to upset the Hermits.

"This is why you come to St. Augustine, to play in these type of games," Rodio said. "This win means a lot. We didn't want to be that flash in the pan, young team that had a decent year and then bowed out of the tournament early."

Jerkins scored 22 points on a variety of inside moves. He overpowered the St. Augustine defenders. Kenny Randall, a 6-3, 295-pound senior, scored 10 of his 12 points in the first quarter. Mainland jumped to a 10-3 lead.

Mainland coach Dan Williams gave both Jerkins and Randall a pep talk on the bus ride to the game.

"Darius showed everyone how good he really is," Williams said. "I told him and Kenny that win, lose or draw this an awesome opportunity that you'll never have again. I told them it would be shame to do anything other than let everyone in the bleachers know what you're all about."

For the first 12 minutes of the second half, neither team led by more than two points. Mainland appeared to grab the momentum when sophomore guard Sam Jackson threw in a running 15-footer at the third-quarter buzzer to give the Mustangs a 41-39 lead.

St. Augustine struggled for offense against Mainland's size. Nelson became more aggressive with the ball in the fourth quarter. He penetrated into the lane to create shots for himself and teammates.

The game turned in St. Augustine's favor on two fourth-quarter possessions.

Mainland had the ball down a point. Randall lobbed a pass inside to Jerkins, who caught the ball in the air and shot in one motion. The ball bounced off the back of the rim.

St. Augustine grabbed the rebound. After a timeout, the Hermits moved the ball around the perimeter against Mainland's zone defense. Kevin Kennedy passed to Nelson, who shot a 3-pointer from just to left the top of the key. The ball swished through the net to put the Hermits up four with 1 minute, 48 seconds left. Mainland never got closer than four points the rest of the game.

"I knew we needed a bucket," Nelson said. "Keven hit with me a good pass, and I was wide open, so I took it. It went in, and it definitely helped us."

Mainland will now prepare for the South Jersey Group III playoffs, which start next week.

"We're at point in the season where moral victories don't mean a lot," Williams said, "but at the same time, there's a lot of positives to be taken from this."

Meanwhile, the Hermits will try to make their first CAL final since the tournament began in 2012. They lost in the semifinals the past two seasons. Atlantic City advanced to the semifinal with a 62-452 win over St. Joseph. St. Augustine beat Atlantic City 60-52 on Jan. 31.

"We're back where we've been the past two years," Rodio said. "We're going to go there and play hard and do the best we can to get out of there."

Contact Michael McGarry:


Mainland Regional 14 12 15 8 – 49

St. Augustine Prep 16 11 12 18 – 57

MR—Jerkins 9 4-4 22, Randall 6 0-0 12, McLaughlin 3 0-0 6, Jackson 2 0-0 4, Riska 1 0-0 3, Dalzell 1 0-0 2. Totals—22 4-4 49.

SA— Nelson 9 4-6 23, Mutts 5 1-2 11, Vasturia 3 1-2 7, Segal 3 0-0 6, Kennedy 1 3-4 6, Seward 2 0-0 4. Totals—20 9-14 57.

3-pointers—Riska MR; Nelson, Kennedy SA.

Records— Mainland Regional 14-10; St. Augustine Prep 21-3.

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