By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
ATLANTIC CITY — Wildwood Catholic girls basketball coach Steve DiPatri is trying to strike a unique balance this season — play fast, but go slowly. Meaning, he wants his experienced lineup to be able to put teams away when it gets a lead by playing an up-tempo style of basketball that leads to a lot of points in transition and quick possessions with chances for offensive rebounds, but he also is trying to savor every moment of a season that could be shut down at any moment due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
There will be plenty to feel good about when DiPatri and his staff roll back the tape of Thursday’s late-afternoon tilt at defending Cape-Atlantic League Tournament champion Atlantic City. The visiting Crusaders held a tenuous 22-16 lead early in the second quarter, but then went on a jaw-dropping 28-2 run that spanned more than two full quarters to sprint to a 58-23 victory.
Senior guard/forward Marianna Papazoglou did a little bit of everything, from running the point to posting up to hitting runners in transition, and finished with 24 points, including 15 in the first half, to lead all scorers.
“Every day our coach tells us to play as hard as we can. Obviously, we have a short season with 15 games, if we can even get 15 games in. So, every day at practice we come in and say we have to go as hard as we can, and I really think that has benefited us,” Papazoglou said. “Playing Atlantic City in our second game, we knew they won the CAL last year and they’re a good team that is well coached. We knew we had to step on the gas and not let up. When they were playing zone we had to start moving the ball a little quicker. Usually we shoot the ball a lot better than we shot it tonight, but it was good that we got offensive rebounds and dominated on the inside. We’ve been practicing a lot on boxing out. We’re not that big of a team, so boxing out definitely helps us.”
But it wasn’t just the Papazoglou show. A Lauren McCallion putback followed by a runner from Xiomara Walker pushed the lead to 29-16 midway through the second quarter, then Papazoglou closed out the 10-0 run that finished the second quarter by nailing a 3-pointer, giving the Crusaders (2-0, 2-0 Cape-Atlantic League East) a 32-16 lead heading into halftime. Things only got worse for Atlantic City (0-1, 0-1 CAL East) in the third quarter, as Carly Murphy drilled a three before Papazoglou fed McCallion on a fast break for a 37-16 Wildwood Catholic lead.
“Everything is different and you have to be able to adjust every day. There are different protocols in different gyms. As a basketball coach, it’s my job to be able to prepare my kids to be ready to play each game and to play each and every game like it’s our last — because we don’t know what tomorrow brings. We want to make the most out of every single minute we have to be together. We want to end (the seniors’) careers in the right way. They are on a mission,” DiPatri said. “Once we adjusted to the speed of the game and made a few defensive adjustments, I thought we played very well defensively, which led to some good possessions at the offensive end. Even though we didn’t shoot the three particularly well tonight we were able to get some rebounds, and I don’t know that I would have expected that against Atlantic City. We just kept grinding at the defensive end, a couple shots started to fall, and you look up and we were up big.”
Wildwood Catholic returns four starters — Papazoglou, Alyia Gray-Rivera, McCallion and Kimmy Casiello — from a team that went 25-5 a year ago and made it to the CAL Tournament semifinal before losing, 42-40, to Mainland Regional.
“Having four starters back, (games like this) I know are in them, and we have role players who are going to get better and better as the season goes on,” DiPatri said. “We just want to win the day, every day, and take it one game at a time, one quarter at a time, one possession at a time — and be the best we can be.”
“Four of us have been on this team together since freshman year and being able to get better every single day with them and being able to have shooters and an inside game has helped a lot,” Papazoglou added. “We didn’t shoot the ball well tonight but we still got the score up there pretty high. Our team is very versatile, we have players who can play both inside and out, and we’re a smart team and that has benefitted us.”
McCallion finished with 11 points for the Crusaders, Gray-Rivera had nine and Murphy chipped in with eight. Sanai Garrison-Macon led the way for Atlantic City with 10 points while Naysha Suarez-Rivera added seven.
Papazoglou said she and the other seniors are hoping that at some point during the season fans will be allowed into games so their parents can see them play one more time, but right now the Crusaders — like every other high school team in South Jersey — have to just take it a day at a time and feel grateful they can even have a season.
“Even the governor doesn’t know, they’re saying maybe we’ll be able to have spectators, maybe not,” she said. “We’re hoping we can get a CAL tournament in, but our goal right now is just to be the best team we can be, get as many wins as we can and show everyone that if there was a CAL tournament, we’d be on that Stockton court (in the championship game).”
What’s next: Wildwood Catholic travels to Middle Township on Monday at 6 p.m. Atlantic City hosts Cape May Tech on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays