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  • Writer's pictureDan Russoman

Wildcats rally past Devils in OT

THG/Dan Russoman. To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940. Hammonton’s Ta’Vonne Barber (14) grabs a rebound in front of St. Joseph’s Jared Demara (5) and Blue Devils teammate Joey Gillen (45) early in last week’s game.

HAMMONTON—St. Joseph Academy coach Paul Rodio called it “epic.”

He was right.

A late 3-pointer and strong overtime run lifted St. Joseph past rival Hammonton 74-67.

“This was a huge win for us against a really good team. Guys stepped up when we needed them and once again, we find a way to win,” Rodio said.

Senior Arnaldo Rodriguez led St. Joe, scoring a game-high 29 points, including 17 in the fourth quarter and overtime.

“Arnaldo [Rodriguez] is our leader. He played great tonight,” Rodio said.

With the game on the line, Rodriguez knew he had to produce.

“The game was close and coach Rodio just told me to put the ball in my hands. He trusts me a lot and my teammates trust me a lot,” Rodriguez said.

With the Wildcats trailing by three points in the final minute of regulation, freshman Will Spross nailed a 3-pointer from the right corner to tie the game and send it to overtime where the Wildcats took control early, scoring the first eight points of the extra period.

The game was close throughout, although early it looked like St. Joseph might cruise to a win.

Midway through the first quarter, St. Joe held a 19-9 lead, but Hammonton used baskets from Kenny Smith and Nic Johnson to close on an 8-1 run.

“They [Hammonton] always play us close. No lead is ever safe against them and they showed that again tonight. [Hammonton coach] Joe [Martino] and their staff do a great job preparing and their kids execute well and play tough basketball,” Rodio said.

The Blue Devils trailed by a point at the half 29-28, and the game was tied at the end of the third quarter, 43-43.

Down the stretch, Hammonton kept finding its way to the foul line, but the Blue Devils failed to put the game away at the line.

“We missed too many free throws,” Hammonton assistant coach Christian Mortellite said.

“That was the difference in the game. We could have wrapped it up at the line and we missed shots. You can’t win like that,” Mortellite said.

It was a missed free throw that led to Spross’ game-tying shot with 31 seconds remaining in regulation.

After a Kenny Smith miss, St. Joe grabbed the rebound, found a quick outlet and rather than run down the clock, moved the ball to an open Spross in the corner and the freshman sank the biggest shot of his career.

“I was locked-in. I knew my teammates had faith in me,” Spross said.

“They trusted me. That’s why they gave me the ball. I just had confidence in myself as well to knock it down. Big win. Big win,” he said.

Rodio said Spross “has ice water in his veins,” and praised the freshman’s play in a clutch situation.

“He does make freshman mistakes, and we live with it. He was not playing well for three quarters, and then he hits a big shot. To me, that shows, if I am any type of coach, that kids can overcome adversity,” Rodio said.

While Rodriguez and seniors Devon Theophile and Jared Demara played well for the Wildcats, the team was confident that Spross would produce when needed.

“We put trust in everybody, especially Will,” Theophile, who finished the game with 14 points and 10 rebounds, said.

Rodriguez, who most felt would take the last shot for the Wildcats, also had confidence in his younger teammate.

“Today felt really good. Last year we lost to them, so coming into this game, a rivalry game, we gave it everything we’ve got. Our freshman, Will, came up big, and from there it was our game. At that point in time, he was confident and we all have confidence in Will. Coach Rodio wanted us to run the break and that was the main thing, to get to the corner. He had confidence in his shot and he made it,” Rodriguez said.

In the overtime period, Rodriguez quickly hit the go-ahead shot sparking an 8-0 run and St. Joe converted 8-of-10 free throws in extra time to seal the win.

Hammonton was hurt early in overtime when Smith, who scored a team-high 25 points in the loss, fouled out with 3:02 remaining.

The Blue Devils questioned the call that cost them Smith, and struggled without him on the floor.

“It was a tough call to cost us our best player there and once he was out, we just didn’t have enough to come back,” Mortellite said.

“That was big. Smith is a great player. He’s unbelievable,” Rodio said.

The victory was St. Joe’s 10th in its last 12 games following an 0-3 start.

“We’ve preached ‘faith’ and the kids have really bought into it. It isn’t always pretty and I think they’ve taken a few years off my life. When we were 0-3, I think we could have spiraled down, but we pulled together and have just fought hard every night,” Rodio said.

Several close wins, including the one at Hammonton last week, have made the players confident.

“We’ve had a lot of crazy games this year. I looked at coach in the middle of the game, and we just knew it was going to go our way. This definitely raises our confidence. A lot of people didn’t think we were going to do it, but we just keep beating everybody that they think we won’t beat. Going into next week, we have a bigger week, and we’re just going to keep fighting,” Theophile said.

In the end, St. Joe was happy with a win that kept their mid-season momentum going.

“I’m just happy our kids fought. For them, it’s an emotional game. It’s a rival. They want to try and take their town back, as they say. But Hammonton is tough. They are tough to beat,” Rodio said.

In addition to Rodriguez’s 29 points and Theophile’s strong game, Shamar Cox added nine points, Demara had eight and Spross finished with seven for St. Joe. Johnson made four 2-pointers and finished with 13 points for Hammonton, while Azzir Smith-Bey added 11 points and eight rebounds.


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