Holy Spirit girls erase 10-point 4th-quarter deficit to reach CAL championship game

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RICHLAND – The Holy Spirit High School Lady Spartans stared the end of their Cape-Atlantic League season right in the face Wednesday.

They never blinked.

The Spartans overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit and beat Cedar Creek, 63-56, in a Cape Atlantic League girls semifinal playoff game at St. Augustine Prep on Feb. 20.

Holy Spirit (19-5) will face Sacred Heart for the CAL championship on Saturday, Feb. 23, at noon in the Big Blue athletic building at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

Sacred Heart (19-6), the defending CAL champion, advanced to the final with a 54-42 victory over top seed Ocean City in Wednesday’s other semifinal game. It was “Upset Wednesday” at the Rodio Gym, as both of the CAL tournament’s top seeds, Ocean City and Cedar Creek, failed to advance.

Holy Spirit won a roller-coaster ride of a game in which the Spartans led by 11 in the second quarter, then trailed by 10 at the start of the fourth before mounting their furious comeback.

“I think our heart just showed when we were down,” said Holy Spirit guard Summer Crilley, who led all scorers with 22 points. “Our big thing is that we like to overcome adversity. That’s exactly what we did tonight.”

Down by 10 at the start of the fourth quarter, the gutsy Spartans got a spark off the bench from defensive-minded guards Dayna Hartley and Brianne Long. Their energy, along with the brilliance of starters Crilley and Gina Lewis, allowed the Spartans to reel off a 14-2 run.

Crilley and Lewis each had four points in that surge, and Long scored a fast-break basket off a feed from Crilley.

Finally, Crilley’s baseline layup gave Holy Spirit a 50-48 lead with 3:05 left in the game. After Kristine Miller tied it for Cedar Creek, Lewis worked her magic inside for another score, and the Spartans never looked back. They made 9-of-11 foul shots down the stretch to preserve the win.

“Even though we were down, we never lost hope,” Lewis said. “We just kept going and going. We didn’t get down on ourselves, and that’s been unlike us when we’re down like that to a good team. We just fought back. The whole season led up to that fight, and we’re going to have that fight until the season’s over.”

Lewis’ defense against Miller allowed coach Dennis Smith to stick with his four-guard lineup that denied Cedar Creek’s excellent perimeter shooters. It worked so well that he left his big forward Annie Wenz out of the game for the entire fourth quarter after she picked up her fourth foul late in the third.

“I knew I had more responsibility guarding Kristine,” Lewis said. “But I had faith in the other defenders to help me out when she got the ball, and that’s exactly what they did at the end of the game.”

“We had them right where we wanted them,” joked coach Smith of the 10-point deficit. “When they came in to the bench on that stoppage, they had that look in their eyes, like, 'We will not go down without a fight.' And I said we had to go to four guards, because our big players were having trouble locating their shooters on the outside.”

Miller still got her points: 21, to lead the Pirates. But she turned the ball over twice in the fourth quarter. Hartley drew an offensive foul by Miller at the height of the Spartans’ comeback.

“Dayna (Hartley) is that unsung hero on our team that does everything we need her to do, and she’s probably our smartest basketball player,” Smith said. “She gets the concepts of what we’re trying to do – dig down against the low post and get steals. She did a great job, and it’s what turned the tide of the game.”

Mikila Stefanski scored 17 points for Cedar Creek (20-3), and Morgan Stefanski had 13. The Stefanski sisters (joined by sister Mercina) were a combined 7-for-18 from 3-point range, with Mikila hitting two near the end of the second quarter that cut Spirit’s lead to three points going into the break.

The Pirates scored 11 unanswered points at the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth to take their biggest lead and seemingly take control of the game. But they couldn’t hold on.

“We pushed the ball when we were ahead, we didn’t slow it down,” said Mercina Stefanski. “All of (Crilley’s) shots were falling, and ours shots weren’t. We should have slowed the game down when we had the lead.”

Saturday’s championship game at Stockton will be a family affair: Holy Spirit’s Lewis and Sacred Heart center Kennedy Johnson are cousins.

“That’s what I was hoping for,” Lewis said. “It will be a great game. We’re pumped.”

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