NORTH WILDWOOD - The St. Joseph High School girls basketball team waited too long to play up to its potential Monday.
Fourth-seeded Wildwood Catholic shut out the fifth-seeded Wildcats in the second quarter and then staved off their second-half rally to earn a 41-32 victory in the first round of the Cape-Atlantic League tournament.
With the win - their first in the three-year history of the tournament - the Crusaders (19-5) advanced to Wednesday's semifinals, where they will take on top-seeded Cedar Creek at St. Augustine Prep in Buena Vista Township.
"This is the second year in a row that the CAL got the seedings wrong for this tournament," St. Joe coach Dan McGettigan said. "There is absolutely no way the three best teams in the league - us, Cedar Creek and Wildwood Catholic - should have been in the same side of the bracket. That guaranteed that the two best teams will not be playing in the championship game."
Wildwood Catholic advanced because of a terrific start Monday.
St. Joe's took a 4-0 lead in the first three minutes but didn't score again until senior guard Gabby Dudo converted an offensive rebound with 6 minutes, 52 seconds remaining in the third quarter. In the meantime, Wildwood Catholic reeled off 20 straight points to seemingly take control.
"It's pretty tough to win when you don't play the first half," McGettigan said. "Wildwood Catholic came out with a lot of intensity in the first half, and we didn't match it. We matched it in the second half, but it was too little, too late."
After falling behind 20-4, the Wildcats fought back into contention.
They trimmed the deficit to 12 points at 29-17 at the end of the third quarter and kept plugging away. Guard Krissy Kocachyn opened the final period with a 3-pointer to start a 10-2 run. Dudo's acrobatic three-point play with 3:23 left in regulation cut the Crusaders' lead to 31-27 while their fans cheered and Wildwood Catholic's crowd grew quiet.
The Crusaders regained their composure down the stretch, however.
Freshman forward Danielle Sanderlin scored on a drive up the middle, and Michigan State-bound center Kennedy Johnson added four foul shots to put the Crusaders ahead 37-28. The Wildcats mounted one more rally, cutting the lead to 36-30 on center Sammi Wetzel's offensive rebound and Samantha Nielson's two foul shots, but guard Katie McCallion's free throw and freshman guard Naijana Sabb's two foul shots in the final seconds sealed the win.
"I knew St. Joe's was going to make a run at some point," Wildwood Catholic coach Steve DiPatri said. "To hold a team like that to four points in the first half is uncanny. But I was pleased with the way we played down the stretch. We made all the right plays when we needed to make them."
Wildwood Catholic relied on a swarming, man-to-man defense to build its early lead.
McCallion and junior guard Olivia Rulon did a great job of cutting off St. Joe's outside shooters while Sanderlin and Johnson stuck close to Wildcats forward Dana DiRenzo and Wetzel.
DiRenzo, who was averaging a team-high 15.3 points per game entering the contest, was held to two points in the first half before breaking loose for nine in the second. Wetzel also scored nine of her 11 points in the second half.
"Protecting big leads is something we've been struggling with all season," McCallion said. "It's hard to do it. We seem to go on big runs and then let the other team come back on us before we go on another run. We've got to learn how to keep kicking a team when they're down.
"Winning this game was great for us. The whole school had a lot of energy today because we were playing back-to-back games with the boys team (which played Millville later Monday). And to win this means a lot. We wanted to prove that we are capable of winning big games."
While Wildwood Catholic prepares to face Cedar Creek for the third time this season - the teams split the first two meetings - St. Joseph will be getting ready to play in next week's state tournament.
The Wildcats are seeded seventh in the South Jersey Parochial B tournament.
"I'm awfully proud of the girls for the way they've played all season," McGettigan said. "They've been playing their hearts out every game."
Contact David Weinberg:
St. Joseph's 4 0 13 15-32
Wildwood Catholic 7 11 13 12-41
SJ-Dudo 2 1-2 5, Kocachyn 1 0-0 3, DiRenzo 5 0-0 11, Wetzel 5 1-3 11, Nielson 0 2-4 2. Totals 13 4-9 32.
WC- Sabb 1 4-4 7, McCallion 3 1-2 8, Rulon 2 0-0 4, Sanderlin 3 2-5 8, Johnson 4 6-6 14. Totals 13 13-17 41.
3-pointers: St. Joseph, Kocachyn, DiRenzo; Wildwood Catholic, McCallion.
Records: St. Joseph 16-7; Wildwood Catholic 19-5.