Staff Writer

HAMMONTON — In the waning seconds of a key Cape-Atlantic League United Conference matchup between host Hammonton and crosstown rival St. Joseph Academy on Thursday night, Blue Devils guard Erik Pabon found himself trapped by two Wildcats defenders right near the Hammonton bench.

But Pabon is a senior; he didn’t panic.

Doing everything he could not to get pushed out of bounds by the two St. Joe defenders, Pabon waited until point guard Kenny Smith could get open, then somehow got a pass off to him just outside the 3-point line.

The freshman did the rest.

With the score tied, 41-41, and time winding down under 10 seconds to play, Smith drove the lane and put up an acrobatic layup, scoring with about three seconds remaining to give the Blue Devils a thrilling 43-41 victory. The win was the second straight for Hammonton, which snapped a three-game losing streak on Tuesday with a 50-51 win over Lower Cape May.

“It wasn’t like we drew it up, but that’s just kids making plays. That’s what we did tonight,” said Hammonton coach Joe Martino. “We had an injury to one of our best defensive players and one of our overall guys who pretty much doesn’t come out of the game — Tyler Lowe — and we had other guys come in with different roles. We had Tavon Barber come in and it was his first game, he hasn’t played all year, so we had different guys step up in different positions, in this type of atmosphere, we’re just really proud of everybody. Everybody was in the game tonight.

“(John) Andoloro did a great job in the paint all night, altering shots, and Kenny Smith — what can I say? He steps up at the right time. The freshman bailed us out at the end with that drive to the basket.”

“I had to move and get my point guard the ball, and I knew he had it. I trust my teammates, I got him the ball and he got the job done,” Pabon said. “That’s Kenny Smith for you. He’s phenomenal. All the energy we have starts with him.”

Glory Days photo/Sully

Smith’s highlight reel layup wasn’t what coach Martino and assistant coach Christian Mortellite drew up, but hey, it worked.

“We drew up an inbounds play and I wasn’t supposed to pass it to the corner. I was supposed to hold it until there were eight seconds left, but I passed it to the corner and immediately regretted it. But (Pabon) was strong with the ball, threw it back, I had to run and get the ball and then just focus on the layup and finishing,” Smith said. “Before the game, I told coach I wasn’t losing to St. Joe twice in one year. We lost in double overtime the last game (Jan. 10), so I told him we weren’t losing twice, and that’s what we did — we came out and go the job done as a team.”

The game was back-and-forth the whole way, as St. Joseph struggled against Hammonton’s zone defense, while the Blue Devils found it difficult to score against the Wildcats’ relentless full- and half-court pressure. The Wildcats (12-4, 7-3 Cape-Atlantic League United) took a 22-19 lead into halftime and led 30-29 heading into the fourth quarter. But Hammonton (9-7, 5-6 CAL United) got a huge boost from Pabon, especially with starting guard Tyler Lowe hobbled by a leg injury in the second half.

After a putback by sophomore guard Ta’Vonne Barber — who also came off the bench in relief of Lowe — gave Hammonton a 31-30 lead, Pabon drilled a 3-pointer to give the home team a 34-30 lead. St. Joseph, however, came right back and tied the game, then went ahead 36-34 on a converted steal by Arnoldo Rodriguez. Back-and-forth they went again, as a three from Jaron Hill put Hammonton back in front, 37-36, with four minutes to go.

Hammonton got another huge 3-pointer from Pabon at the top of the key with 2:05 remaining. That gave the Blue Devils a 41-39 lead.

“He does that. He’s always ready. He knows he has to pull it when he gets the opportunity, and he did that tonight. He made some big shots,” Martino said of Pabon. “He’s always ready to shoot and he always shoots well in practice. We just tell him, when you get a look — especially against a trapping defense like they were, you didn’t know what they were going to do sometimes. They were mixing up their defenses well and they did a great job of keeping us off balanced all night. We knew if we had a shooter who gets a look in the corner or on a wing, sometimes you just have to take it.”

“I can only thank coach Mortellite, he always keeps my confidence up, tells me to keep shooting,” Pabon said. “But it starts with defense, my energy is crazy. We just have to keep our energy up and stick together. My teammates helped me get all the confidence I needed.”

Said Smith, “Erik is a good kid and he’s been with (this program) through it all. He works hard every day to make shots like those in the game.”

St. Joe tied the game at 41 on a pair of free throws from Rodriguez with 1:52 left, and the teams traded empty possessions before Hammonton had one last shot with less than 30 seconds to go, and that possession made a hero out of Smith.

Glory Days photo/Sully

Hammonton has some big games coming up next week, including tilts against Middle Township and Mainland Regional, who have combined for 21 wins this season. The Blue Devils are fighting with the likes of Wildwood Catholic, Ocean City, ACIT, Vineland, Holy Spirit, St. Joseph and Mainland for one of the two at-large bids to the CAL Tournament. St. Joseph and Holy Spirit are battling it out for the No. 2 spot in the CAL United behind conference-leading EHT (15-1, 10-0).

“This is a really hard division. I think it’s the best division in South Jersey, team-for-team. I really mean that — take the Olympic, whatever — our division is by far the toughest. We’re in battles every night,” Martino said. “Our record is only 9-7 but I can tell you, I know we’ve lost some tough games at the end; we lost one to St. Joe earlier in the year at the end. But we have this opportunity, we beat Lower Cape May now we’ve beaten St. Joe, we’ve gotten two in a row and we want to take that momentum into next week to try to get into the CAL Tournament. We’re not in yet, we’re just not. So, we have to fight next week. If we don’t win next week, we’re not going to get in. That’s just the way it’s working this year.”

The players say they are confident, though, especially after getting a tough win over one of the best teams in the Cape-Atlantic League. It was the first time Hammonton beat St. Joe since a 67-59 win over the Wildcats on Jan. 23, 2015.

“This is great. We haven’t beaten them in six or seven years, so to beat them in my senior year is the greatest feeling in the world,” Pabon said. “We’re going to keep fighting and I promise you, we’ll get into the state playoffs and we’ll go on the biggest run. They won’t understand where we’re coming from.”

Added Smith, “I feel like we can compete with any team in the CAL and even have a chance of winning (the CAL Tournament). We’ve played well against every team. We’re a strong team and we believe in each other. This gives us a big confidence boost. We came in off a win against Lower Cape May after losing about four straight, so this is a big confidence booster.”

What’s next: Hammonton hosts Cape May Tech on Monday at 5:30 p.m. St. Joseph takes on Westampton Tech tonight at 7:30 as part of the Holy Cross Prep Showcase event.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan:; on Twitter @GDsullysays