By DAVE O’SULLIVAN

Staff Writer

ABSECON — The game of musical chairs has begun, and Holy Spirit doesn’t want to be left standing when the music stops.

The Cape-Atlantic League Tournament is just a few weeks away and there are plenty of teams battling for the two at-large bids to the eight-team field. Spartans coach Kyle Dhyne knows his team grabbing one of the automatic berths as one of the top two teams in the United Conference may be a long shot at this point with how well EHT and St. Joseph are playing, so every win is huge as the calendar flips to February.

Holy Spirit picked up its ninth win on Monday night, beating Mainland, 57-45, for the Spartans’ second win over the Mustangs in less than a week. The Spartans traveled to Linwood last Wednesday and scored a 56-55 overtime win. The victory Monday night was Spirit’s fourth straight, and the theme in all those wins has been defense. None of Spirit’s opponents have scored more than 55 points since St. Joseph beat the Spartans 60-41 on Jan. 20.

“Talking was the key. We talked a lot of defense. We looked at (the film) from last week and we focused on talking tonight. That helped,” said junior guard Jahmir Smith, who led all scorers with 17 points, including three 3-pointers. “You saw it right off the bat, it was our defense (that was the key).”

Glory Days photo/Sully

Holy Spirit (9-5, 6-3 Cape-Atlantic League United) applied full-court pressure whenever it could in the first half, and that had Mainland frustrated. The Mustangs (8-8, 2-6 CAL United) scored just nine points in each of the first two quarters, and trailed 22-18 heading into halftime. A huge key to Spirit’s defensive success — especially lately — has been the emergence of senior guard George Coles. His ability to play point guard and spend a lot of energy defending the other team’s primary ball-handling guard is freeing up Smith to be more of an offensive threat.  

“We definitely needed to come out better than we did the last game, just come out and play better defense, come out stronger,” said Holy Spirit junior forward Jamil Wilkins, who finished with 11 points. “We worked on stepping in and helping, and George playing more on-the-ball defense, and we’ve been getting better with that.”

“With George, it’s never a little role. George plays defense — he plays defense like a pest and he’s getting me off the ball so I can get open for shots more,” Smith said. “It’s aways a big help to have more guards, to have people who can handle the ball and who you can trust with the ball.”

Coles hit just one shot the whole night, but it was a big one. With 3:24 left, Mainland sliced Spirit’s lead to 46-41 when Cohen Cook hooked up with Jamie Tyson for a runout layup. But less than 30 seconds later, Coles nailed a 3-pointer from the right wing to push the lead out to 49-41, and after a putback by Ky Gilliam, the Spartans led by 10 points, 51-41.

Mainland continued to make runs to close the gap throughout the second half, but Spirit answered with big shots each time. The Mustangs got a big three from point guard Christian Rodgers early in the third quarter, but on the next trip down the floor Spirit answered with a 3-pointer from Wilkins to go ahead 29-23. Later, Mainland cut the deficit all the way down to just two points, 29-27, but Spirit got a huge three from Smith to go ahead 32-27, and the Spartans carried a 38-32 lead into the fourth quarter.

The back breaker for the Mustangs came early in the fourth quarter, when Spirit blocked a shot on the defensive end and turned that into an outlet layup by Jayden Llanos and a 42-34 lead. Mainland was able to make one more run before Coles’ 3-pointer with 3:08 to go effectively iced it.

Glory Days photo/Sully

Holy Spirit needed a win like this, especially with the kind of games it has coming up. The Spartans host Ocean City on Tuesday night, and also in February the Spartans have to go up against Camden and Egg Harbor Township, two of the best teams in South Jersey.

“This was definitely a good win and we definitely needed this,” Wilkins said. “We came out on the short end in some losses early in the season, so we needed this. We have to get better and defense, but we also have to get better offensively. Most teams are going to start going to play zone on us, so we have to work on that and work on getting better.”

“It’s about winning right now. It’s about how you win, how you go about it. We want to go hard every night,” Smith said. “Right now it’s all about just grinding, staying focused, executing plays. We talk a lot about adversity. Last time they took us to overtime. Tonight we just had to come out with talking, athleticism — everything. We had to turn it up.”

Through the first five games of the season Holy Spirit was just 3-2. In the 10 games since, the Spartans have gone 7-3.  

“The first half of the season we had to find our identity,” Smith said. “Coach always says we have to find our identity, and we’re starting to find that. Our identity is defense, and once you get really good at one thing, the other things come more easily.”

What’s next: Holy Spirit hosts Ocean City on Tuesday at 7 p.m. Mainland hosts St. Joseph Academy on Tuesday at 4 p.m.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays