WILDWOOD - The Wildwood Catholic High School girls basketball team earned what may turn out to be its biggest victory of the season at Wildwoods Convention Center on Saturday night.
No matter how the Crusaders fare in their next 20 games, they can enjoy the fact that they earned bragging rights over rival Wildwood.
Wildwood Catholic jumped to an early lead and withstood a Warriors rally during a 56-40 victory in the Andrew Alameno Girls Island championship game of the Boardwalk Basketball Classic.
The game is named in honor of Andrew Alamedo, a Wildwood Crest native and 1982 Wildwood Catholic graduate who died in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.
"Regardless of the records, this is always a big game," said Wildwood coach Dave Troiano, who is in his 35th season. "The kids really get after it."
An enthusiastic crowd featuring fans from Wildwood Crest, Wildwood, North Wildwood and West Wildwood cheered from the bleachers and the barriers behind one of the baselines. Each shot, rebound and foul elicited roars or groans, depending on the fans' allegiance.
The game has taken on an even bigger meaning since Wildwood moved from the Cape-Atlantic League to the Tri-County Conference in 2002-2003. The teams started playing just once a year three years ago.
"We know each other very well and that just adds to the game," Wildwood Catholic junior forward Katie McCallion said. "We were nervous all day. This is such a big game and you never know what's going to happen."
That unpredictability produced an exciting finish to what initially appeared to be a blowout.
Wildwood Catholic (2-2) looked headed to an easy victory in the first half. McCallion and sophomore forward Olivia Rulon combined for 19 first-half points in helping the Crusaders storm to a 25-10 halftime lead.
Wildwood (2-2) scored just three points in the first quarter and shot 3-for-24 from the field in the first half.
Then junior guard Jessica Freeman led the Warriors on an impressive comeback. Freeman scored 17 of her game-high 22 points during a 14-minute span to lead Wildwood back into contention.
McCallion's 3-point play gave the Crusaders a 19-point lead at 36-17 midway through the third quarter. Freeman then scored 14 of Wildwood's next 15 points during a 16-4 surge that cut the deficit to six points at 40-34 with 5 minutes, 57 seconds remaining in regulation.
Wildwood Catholic coach Vicki Dillmore called timeout.
"I was getting very worried at that point, but I couldn't let the girls know that," said Dillmore, a 1990 Wildwood graduate who played for Troiano and was a teammate of Wildwood assistant coach Teresa (Polini) Cunniff. "They feed off me, so I can't freak out. I didn't want them to fall apart and freeze, so I just let them know that they were letting Wildwood back into the game.
"This is always an emotional game for the two schools. It's been that way even before I played in it. It's a very special game for me because I'm coaching against my mentor. I learned so much from him. I've known coach Troiano since I was in the fourth grade."
Dillmore's message was well-received.
Rulon scored the Crusaders' first points of the fourth quarter on a jumper with 4:49 to play. Wildwood Serena Seijo converted a pass from Freeman to cut the lead back to six, but then Wildwood Catholic went on a 12-2 run to clinch the win.
Rulon led the Crusaders with 18 points while McCallion added 14 points and 13 rebounds. Freeman finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds for the Warriors, who scored 21 of their 40 points on foul shots.
"Our kids could have packed it in when we got so far down, but they kept fighting and I'm proud of them for doing that," Troiano said. "They just have to learn that you have to play basketball for 32 minutes if you want to be successful."
Contact David Weinberg:
Wildwood Catholic 12 13 15 16-56
Wildwood 3 7 15 15-40
WC-Ballman 3 1-2 7, Gawarzewski 2 0-0 4, McCallion 6 2-4 14, Andress 1 0-0 2, Long 1 0-0 2, Mulholland 3 3-4 9, Rulon 7 4-5 18. Totals 23 10-15 56.
W-Toland 0 1-2 1, Farlow 0 2-4 2, Seijo 4 0-0 9, Freeman 4 14-18 22, Melchiorre 1 0-0 2, Reyes 0 4-6 4. Totals 9 21-30 40.
RECORDS-Wildwood Catholic 2-2; Wildwood 2-2.