Staff Writer

MILLVILLE — Every high school basketball player has had that dream at least once — the one where there are less than five seconds to go, you take the inbounds pass, dribble to half court, throw up a prayer 3-pointer, and — nothing but net. Game over, your team wins. You’re an instant hero and people will mention that play over and over again at the 20-year reunion.

St. Augustine Prep sophomore point guard Samaj Bethea lived that dream on Wednesday night in the Cape-Atlantic League semifinals against Holy Spirit at Millville High School.

Spirit’s Jamir Smith connected on 1-of-2 free throws with 4.9 seconds left to put his team up, 40-39, Prep called a timeout when Elijah Brown rebounded the missed free throw, and there was some confusion about how much time was really left on the clock and where Prep would be inbounding from on the restart, and the delay lasted more than five minutes. When play resumed, the Hermits were about 90 feet from the basket and had four seconds to make a play.

Bethea took the inbounds pass, dribbled as fast as he could up the right sideline, and after he got past half court he threw up a shot that swished in and gave the second-seeded Hermits a miraculous 42-40 win over No. 6 Holy Spirit. Prep advances to Saturday’s championship game against No. 8 Mainland, an upset winner over No. 4 St. Joseph Academy in the other semifinal.

Glory Days photo/Sully

“I was hoping the kid in the corner was open, but (Spirit) denied him and took that away,” explained Hermits coach Paul Rodio. “So, I was thinking if we couldn’t go there we were in trouble, but (Bethea) made a shot. That was a great shot.”

“With like four seconds left, coach called a good play and I was able to hit the big shot,” said Bethea, who grew up in Camden. “When it left my hand, I felt it was going it. That was crazy. I’ve been in a lot of situations when the game was close and I’ve always converted, and that’s just what I was trying to do there. (I just saw) everybody running and jumping. I was at the bottom of the pile. I made a buzzer beater before, but not from half court.”

“It was a rough game, a lot of our shots were in-and-out. I knew it was going to be a hard-fought game from the start. They’re a good team, we are, too. We just fought hard and our prayer got answered at the end,” said Brown, an Atlantic City native who led the way with 18 points and 11 assists for the Hermits. “I can’t believe (that ending). My mind is still blown right now. It’s legendary. This is going to go in the history books and we’ll look back on this in 20 years and talk about Semaj making that shot.”

That miracle half-court shot was a beautiful ending to what otherwise was an ugly game, with both teams playing physical, scrappy defense that led to a very low-scoring game. The teams were a combined 13-for-60 from the field in the first half, and at halftime Prep led just 20-14. St. Augustine Prep (22-2) led, 36-30, with four minutes to go, but Spirit (14-8) stormed back to take a 37-36 lead. Jahmir Smith scored a layup in transition, Jamil Wilkins converted a layup after a steal and a traditional three-point play from Ky Gilliam gave the Spartans the lead.

Smith then hit a pair of free throws with less than 90 seconds to go to put Holy Spirit up, 39-36. Prep fought back from the free-throw line, where Brown nailed 3-of-4 shots on two separate possessions to tie the game, 39-39. Smith was then fouled with 4.9 seconds to go while driving for the potential winning layup, and he connected on 1-of-2 from the line to put Spirit up, 40-39, and set up the final dramatic winning play from Bethea, who finished with 11 points and three assists.

“Both teams were playing pretty good D, so it was a low scoring game,” Bethea said. “The refs were letting both teams play and the game was really physical the whole game, but we were able to get on top and get the win.”

Glory Days photo/Sully

“We were bad offensively and they did a really good job defensively to take us out of some things, but we were bad throughout the night. But, we hung in there. Defensively, we did what we had to. I’m going to give them credit for why we were bad offensively, they did a great job defensively. They were very physical and took us out of things,” coach Rodio said. “The difference in the game was we made foul shots and they didn’t — it’s as simple as that. It was a close game and (Bethea) makes a great shot at the end. I give our kids credit for hanging in there. We’re all sophomores, a freshman coming in there and a few juniors. I didn’t know where they would go as a team, but for the most part they have gotten better and better all year, they’ve stuck together and done what we’ve asked them to do and we’ve put ourselves in position to win a championship on Saturday.”

The win means a lot for a team that has a lot of youth and is still developing, Rodio said. It also has more meaning this year due to a severe health scare that had coach Rodio in the hospital before the season even began.

“It’s a tremendous rivalry between these schools. We knew going in it was going to be a little bit like the Paul VI game. We’ve developed a little rivalry with them now — tooth-and-nail, fight, grab, old-fashioned Catholic high school basketball like the way it was when I was a kid. I’d see a game every night like that. It ranks as one of the better games and endings (of my career),” he said. “It’s hard for me to voice my emotions completely. Laying in a hospital bed (before the season) and hoping to get to this point. I told everybody in the hospital that I just hope I can come back, and now we’re in a championship game.”

Added Bethea, “this means a lot. It means a lot for coach, too. We just want to go on Saturday and take care of business. We really came from nothing and now we’re here, so we’ll keep working together and hopefully get the win on Saturday.”

What’s next: No. 2 St. Augustine Prep vs. No. 8 Mainland Regional, CAL Tournament Championship, Saturday at noon at Absegami High.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan:; on Twitter @GDsullysays