By DAVE O’SULLIVAN

Staff Writer

ATLANTIC CITY — There was a time, not too long ago, when Wildwood Catholic was one of the dominant teams in Cape-Atlantic League girls basketball. Gone are the days, though, of Marianna Papazoglou and Gabby Turco, but there is a whole new crop of young players looking to make a name for themselves in Royal blue-and-white.

As long as Steve DiPatri is their coach, the Crusaders will always be a team that can’t be overlooked in the league, and they proved that point on Thursday night with a hard-fought 36-31 win over Absegami in the CAL Tournament semifinals. The win pits Wildwood Catholic against the league’s best — Mainland Regional, which took down Atlantic City in the other semifinal and is 22-2 this year, its only losses coming against state power Manasquan and South Jersey’s best team, Paul VI. The championship game is set for 2 p.m. on Saturday at Absegami.

“We have a lot of young kids who have bought into my system, share the ball and play the game the right way. We have multiple options out there on the floor and they are able to execute what I ask them to do,” said DiPatri, whose team improved to 21-4 and has won 10 straight games despite having just three seniors in the lineup.

Glory Days photo/Sully

One of those seniors is point guard Kimmy Casiello, a four-year starter who despite scoring just two points racked up six assists and — most importantly — had zero turnovers in the game.

“She’s my leader,” DiPatri said. “She’s my point guard. If you look back through all my great teams, we’ve had great point guards and Kimmy is the epitome of that.”

The game was tied at 16 heading into halftime, but the difference in the second half was Wildwood Catholic’s defensive effort, particularly on standout Absegami freshman point guard Reese Downey. The Crusaders smothered her with double-team coverage and limited her to just three second-half points after she had scored 10 in the first two quarters.

“She’s definitely a lethal player and we knew coming into this game we had to play lock-down defense on her,” Casiello explained. “She’ll shoot it from a foot behind (the 3-point line) so you just have to play up on defense and get over those high screens that they have, and that’s what we tried to do.”

“We saw what they did all year, we came in with our game plan and our kids executed our defensive game plan,” DiPatri added. “We felt as if our system and discipline would carry us through as long as we won individual matchups, and the final score shows the result.”

Glory Days photo/Sully

The ability to connect from beyond the arc also played a huge role in the second half for the Crusaders. Absegami (14-9) led, 24-19, late in the third quarter when Julia Hartman hit a corner three, but Wildwood Catholic answered with a three from Carly Murphy to cut the deficit to 24-22. Another three from Murphy — who finished with a game-high 16 points — early in the fourth got the Crusaders to within 26-25. The teams traded threes midway through the fourth as Downey nailed one to put the Braves up, 31-30, but Wildwood Catholic finished the game ona  6-0 run that featured a big-time 3-pointer from Ella McCabe and three free throws from Ava Vogdes and McCabe in the final 1:09 to seal it.

“From our summer leagues, fall leagues and (preseason) camp, you could see how we’ve progressed every single game,” Casiello said. “This is a great group and they really have the system down. We practice (threes) all the time, we practice foul shots, and that’s what pulled us through — our free throws and our 3-pointers.”

Some may have believed this version of Wildwood Catholic girls basketball was too young and inexperienced to make any real noise this year. Nobody inside the program thought like that, though.

“I live my life where the opinion of others is not my business,” DiPatri said. “I just do what I do, and my kids have bought into that mentality, too. We spent a lot of time over the summer and they’ve just gotten better and better, and here we are, we’ll be playing on Saturday now.”

Added Casiello, “I’ve definitely been a part of some great teams but I’ve never gotten to the finals, and this is the best feeling I’ve ever had.”

What’s next: No. 1 Mainland vs. No. 3 Wildwood Catholic in the Cape-Atlantic League Championship, Saturday at 2 p.m. at Absegami High School.

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