ABSECON - Gina Lewis was emotional as she spoke to her teammates Friday night.
In a postgame meeting in the locker room, the Holy Spirit High School senior expressed overwhelming pride about the Spartans girls basketball team and its spectacular efforts. Her teammates gave her much to admire.
Holy Spirit defeated Millville 68-40 in a first- round game of the Cape-Atlantic League tournament. The third-seeded Spartans (17-5) will face No. 2 Cedar Creek in the semifinals at 5p.m. Wednesday at St. Augustine Prep in Buena Vista Township. Lewis, senior Annie Wenz and junior Summer Crilley had banner games.
Lewis and Wenz each contributed double-doubles for Holy Spirit - Lewis had 13 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks while Wenz added 11 points and 15 rebounds.
"That was the best we've played together all year," Lewis said. "Every person came to play and every person contributed in different ways."
Uncertainty and worry dampened the Spartans' mood leading up to Friday's contest. The drama started Wednesday, when coach Dennis Smith received notice from a Holy Spirit student that Garofalo and Crilley were in a car accident on their way to school in the morning.
No one was seriously injured, but the girls were bruised and sore and taken to a hospital to get checked for concussions. The scare upset the close-knit Spartans. Garofalo and Crilley returned to school the next day, but Smith had them sit a portion of Holy Spirit's practice Thursday so they could further recover. He was unsure they'd be able to play Friday.
Despite being bruised and rattled, Crilley and Garofalo (six points, four steals) showed no signs of injury. Crilley exploded for 24 points, five steals and three assists. Holy Spirit went on a 9-2 run to start the fourth quarter and never gave up a commanding lead.
"We really became closer because of all that," Smith said. "This was our best team effort of the year by far."
The Spartans' ever-present team chemistry was evident. Wednesday's scare made them appreciate playing together even more.
Lewis rebounded a missed Millville shot. She threw an overhead pass to Crilley, who dished a cross pass to Garofalo. Garofalo brought the ball past half court before tossing it to Wenz, who hit an easy layup.
The Spartans enjoyed every second of the game. Millville (15-7), which is ranked No. 11 in The Press Elite 11, beat Holy Spirit 46-43 two weeks ago to split their CAL American Division series. Holy Spirit won the division title but wanted to exact some revenge on the Thunderbolts.
"We learned a lot from the last game. We were way more intense and way more confident being here. We don't lose on our home court," Crilley said.
Meanwhile, the Spartans were able to shut down Millville's Ashli Weems, who had 21 rebounds but was held to five points. Amanda Smith added 14 points and Lexi Bruno 13 for Millville.
Bruno, who is among the area's most gifted point guards, struggled to score as she battled with a lingering hip injury. The junior suffered an injury to her hip flexor in a game against Our Lady of Mercy Academy on Feb. 7.
Despite the pain, the competitive Bruno refused to sit out Friday's game. She briefly missed time in the third quarter but played the fourth.
Smith made a pair of free throws early in the second quarter to cut the Thunderbolts' deficit to four points, but they never got closer the rest of the way.
When Bruno returned at the start of the fourth quarter, the Thunderbolts trailed by 24 points.
"We didn't play our best. … You can't come back from that much on a good team like them," Bruno said.
The Spartans will face Cedar Creek, last year's state Group I champion, in the semifinals. The Pirates (18-3) are fourth in the Elite 11 and haven't lost to a CAL team since a Dec. 17 game at Ocean City.
Holy Spirit has played tough regular-season games against teams such as Phillipsburg, Rumson-Fair Haven, Point Pleasant Beach, Cinnaminson and Rancocas Valley.
A battle-tested Holy Spirit looks forward to its next challenge.
"I can't wait," Smith said. "They're one of the elite programs. Our season has been all about playing the best teams in the state, and (Cedar Creek) is one of them."
Contact Brittany Grugan:
Millville 8 12 10 10-40
Holy Spirit 16 19 19 24-68
M-Bruno 5 2-2 13, Smith 4 5-6 14, Weems 1 3-6 5, Gaskins 2 1-2 5, Caez 1 0-0 3. Totals-13 11-16 40.
HS-Garofalo 3 0-1 6, Crilley 6 12-13 24, Wenz 5 1-2 11, Lewis 3 7-8 13, Shields 3 0-0 7, Wilson 1 2-4 5, Pallitto 1 0-0 2. Totals-21 22-27 68.
3-pointers-Bruno, Smith, Caez M; Shields, Wilson HS.
Records-Millville 15-8; Spirit 17-5.