Holy Spirit girls rally to beat Sacred Heart for CAL championship

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calgirlsfinal Matt Strabuk/Holy Spirit's Gina Lewis goes up for a shot against Sacred Heart in the Cape-Atlantic League championship game on Feb. 23, 2013.

GALLOWAY – Like a master tightrope walker, the Holy Spirit High School Lady Spartans showed remarkable poise while tottering on the brink of imminent defeat.

Gina Lewis took a pass from Val Garafalo at the top of the lane and calmly drained a shot with 2.1 seconds left to play, giving Holy Spirit a 39-38 victory over Sacred Heart in the Cape-Atlantic League girls basketball championship game Saturday at Richard Stockton College.

Holy Spirit (20-5) rallied from an eight-point fourth-quarter deficit to win its first CAL championship since 2006.

“Honestly, I’m surprised it went in because I wasn’t making any jump shots the whole game,” Lewis said. “I’m glad it happened that time instead of any other time in the game. I saw the opening, and I just stepped up to it. I’m glad Val saw me. If it wasn’t for her, the shot wouldn’t have been there.”

“Don’t think about it, just do it,” coach Dennis Smith said he preaches to his shooters. “In this type of game, any one of my girls could have had the ball in that situation and I would have been confident. We’re a true team, five members of a team.”

The Spartans have become the “Comeback Kids” of the 2013 postseason. They overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to upset Cedar Creek in the semifinal round.

“We absolutely do not give up,” Lewis said. “With two minutes left we were still down, but we fought to come back.”

CALgirlsFinal Matt Strabuk/Holy Spirit's Val Garofalo drives against Sacred Heart's Alyssa Fabrizio

“We don’t go down without a fight,” Garafalo said. “We bring the intensity, and the other team’s not ready for it. We kind of wake ourselves up.”

Sacred Heart (19-7), the defending CAL champion, led by eight points on a basket by Kayla Smith early in the fourth quarter. That’s when the Spartans shifted into gear, forcing several Sacred Heart turnovers and scoring 10-straight points, including two field goals by Summer Crilley, a put-back by Annie Wenz, and a three-point play by Garafalo.

Sacred Heart’s Kennedy Johnson hit two foul shots to give the Lions a three-point lead with 49.3 seconds left, but Holy Spirit reserve Brianne Long made a huge shot with 35 seconds left to draw the Spartans to within a point.

After another Sacred Heart turnover, the Spartans moved the ball around smartly and with remarkable calm on their last possession. They took their time, with everybody touching the ball, and let the clock wind down perilously close to zero before Garafalo spotted Lewis wide open at the top of the lane.

Lewis set herself and dropped the shot cleanly into the net. There wasn’t enough time left for the Lions to even get a shot off. When the final buzzer sounded, the Holy Spirit bench and fans erupted in celebration, mobbing Lewis at center court.

“It was all on the line right at the end,” Crilley said. “We wanted this so bad. We pulled through at the end.”

“High-low is one of our bread and butter plays,” Smith said, “and she hit that shot from the high post. That was a big shot for her to hit.”

Lewis led the Spartans with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Her cousin, Kennedy Johnson, had 15 points and 13 rebounds for Sacred Heart, and Mandy Buirch added 14 points.

Lewis and Johnson are not only cousins but best friends. They shared an emotional moment of conversation and long embrace after the game.

“I told her, ‘Great game, and I love you’,” Lewis said. “She played great.”

“I just told her, congratulations, I love her, and I’m happy for her,” Johnson said. “She’s a senior, so this is a great way for her to go out.”

“It’s great that I got to go out my last season with a hurrah,” Lewis said, “especially with these teammates. These are the best teammates in the world.”

Both teams have basketball left to play this season in the state non-public playoffs. But Garafalo said the senior-laden Spartans have designs on some new interior decorations for their home gym in Absecon:

“We wanted to change the banners, and we did,” she said.

“We’re not done yet,” Smith said. “Yeah, the CAL championship is great, but we’ve got the state championships, and neither the boys or girls have won a state championship yet. It’s time that we changed that.”

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