By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
HAMMONTON — The St. Joseph Academy Wildcats had something stuck in their craw for nearly 12 months. A 43-41 loss to crosstown and bitter rival Hammonton last Feb. 3, in Hammonton’s home gym.
Senior guard Arnaldo Rodriguez remembered that loss, and wanted some payback Friday night. It was one of eight losses the Wildcats had a year ago, but losing to your arch rival burns more than most losses.
To help his team’s cause, all Rodriguez did was go out and score a game-high 29 points to lead St. Joseph Academy to a thrilling 74-67 overtime victory over the Blue Devils in the Bunting Family Pharmacy Game of the Week. He also finished with two rebounds, three assists and four steals as the Wildcats — one of the hottest teams in the Cape-Atlantic League — won their third straight game and their eighth in the last nine contests.
St. Joseph Academy had built a 10-point lead at one point in the first half, but Hammonton hung tough and led, 64-61, in the final minute of regulation. But on a runout after a missed free throw, Wildcats freshman Will Spross found himself wide open in the right corner. He calmly drained a 3-pointer with 31 seconds left and that eventually forced overtime after Hammonton’s final shot came up short. From there, it was all Wildcats, as they went on an 8-0 run to start the overtime period after Hammonton star guard Kenny Smith fouled out. Smith finished with 25 points and seven assists and was electrifying all game before picking up his fifth foul early in overtime.
“Today felt really good. Last year we lost to them, so coming into this game, a rivalry game, we gave it everything we’ve got,” Rodriguez said. “Our freshman, Will, came up big, and from there it was our game. At that point in time, he was confident and we all have confidence in Will. Coach (Paul) Rodio wanted us to run the break and that was the main thing, to get to the corner; he had confidence in his shot and he made it.
“The game was close and coach Rodio just told me to put the ball in my hands. He trusts me a lot and my teammates trust me a lot.”
“We put trust in everybody, especially Will,” said senior Devon Theophile, a Winslow resident. “A lot of people have been talking, but we just keep fighting. We were 0-3 (to start the season). But like our coaches say, we just have to keep the faith because we have a lot of new people playing together. We’ve been trusting the seniors, and we’ve been playing as a team. We’ve turned it around and now we’re going on a run.”
It looked as though St. Joseph Academy (10-5, 7-2 Cape-Atlantic League National) would run away with a blowout in the first half as the Cats built a 19-9 lead, but Smith continued to keep the Blue Devils in it. He scored 14 of his 25 points in the first half, and by the break Hammonton (8-5, 4-2 CAL American) had cut St. Joe’s lead to 29-28.
The lead changed hands several time throughout the third quarter, and the teams were tied at 43 heading into the fourth. With 3:20 left Nic Johnson nailed a three to give Hammonton a 59-58 lead, and after four straight points from Smith the Devils held a 63-59 lead with 1:08 to go. Rodriguez hit a pair of free throws to get the Wildcats within 63-61, and after Smith hit 1-of-2 from the line with 39 seconds left to put Hammonton up 64-61, that’s when Spross came through with his heroics.
Theophile was a beast on the low blocks all night, finishing with 14 points and 10 rebounds despite Hammonton rotating several forwards all night to try to deal with him.
“We’ve had a lot of crazy games this year. I looked at coach in the middle of the game, and we just knew it was going to go our way,” he said. “I’m beat up right now, but I’m used to it. A lot of teams are going to come for me because I’m leading the state in rebounds. A lot of people try to box me out.”
Shamar Cox and Jared Demara combined for 17 points for St. Joseph Academy, while Johnson finished with 13 points for Hammonton and Azzir Smith-Bey chipped in 11 points and eight rebounds.
St. Joseph will look to keep its winning streak going with four games next week, including a big tilt at Middle Township on Monday night.
“This definitely raises our confidence,” Theophile said. “A lot of people didn’t think we were going to do it, but we just keep beating everybody that they think we won’t beat. Going into next week, we have a bigger week, and we’re just going to keep fighting.”
What’s Next: St. Joseph Academy travels to Middle Township on Monday night at 7. Hammonton hosts Atlantic City on Monday at 7 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays