Marcus Pierce dribbled out the final seconds of the St. Joseph High School boys basketball team’s 66-58 upset of Wildwood Catholic on Tuesday night.
The Wildcats and their coach, Paul Rodio, rushed together and celebrated when the final buzzer sounded.
The song “All I Do Is Win” blared as the home fans cheered.
I turned to St. Augustine coach Paul Rodio, the father of the St. Joe coach, and said, “Reminds you of 1996.”
The elder Rodio just smiled.
On Jan. 3, 1996, the Hermits, coached by the elder Rodio, stunned Pleasantville 71-64 in overtime.
On that night, the Hermits celebrated after the final buzzer as the theme from ESPN SportsCenter blared.
Tuesday’s upset sparked memories of that 1996 contest for a couple of reasons.
The first is that a father and son were the winning coaches.
The second is the similarity in how Cape-Atlantic League basketball fans thought about Pleasantville then and Wildwood Catholic now.
The 1996 Greyhounds finished 30-1 and won the state Group II championship in 1995. Pleasantville featured Division I players Rob Strickland, Jamar Perry and Clifton Jones.
The Greyhounds were thought to be invincible — at least in the CAL — in 1996. Pleasantville walked into St. Augustine’s old gym, nicknamed the cave because of its poor lighting, ranked No. 2 in the state.
The game was close from the start.
St. Augustine standout Mike Kouser forced overtime with a 3-pointer from the left wing with 4 seconds left. Sophomore point guard Tom Pippett made three critical foul shots in the final minute of overtime to clinch the victory.
“I’ve been coaching 19 years, and this might be the biggest, single regular-season win I’ve had,” Hermits coach Rodio said that night. “My kids deserve all the credit in the world. They just kept fighting. They never say die.”
Since then, Rodio has led the Hermits to four state championships. Still, that might be St. Augustine’s best regular-season win ever.
The 2020 Wildwood Catholic Crusaders might have been the CAL’s most-ballyhooed team since the 1996 Greyhounds.
Wildwood Catholic finished 27-2 and won its second straight CAL title last season. The Crusaders captured the state’s attention when they lost to nationally-ranked Ranney School 54-50 in overtime in last year’s South Jersey Non-Public B title game.
Excitement around the Crusaders increased in the offseason when senior Taj Thweatt committed to West Virginia and senior Jahlil White to Temple.
But on Tuesday, the Crusaders lost a game few saw coming. The defeat ended Wildwood Catholic’s 31-game CAL United Division winning streak.
“Nobody thought we were going to pull this one out,” Pierce said. “Me and my guys, our coaches, we all stayed together with the belief we were going to come out with the win. We stuck to the game plan, and we got it done.”
After the St. Augustine loss, the Pleasantville coach, the late Ken Leary, walked off the court. His face was purple. His eyes vacant.
“There’s no good that can come of this,” he said afterwards.
Leary was wrong.
The Greyhounds survived the defeat. They would go on that season to win their second straight state Group II championship. The Greyhounds are remembered as one of the best teams in CAL history.
With four losses in its last seven games, Wildwood Catholic is in a funk. The Crusaders play another high-profile game when they meet Camden at Neumann University in Aston, Pennsylvania, at 5 p.m. Sunday.
When they’re right, the Crusaders can play with any team in the state. Their goals — a third straight CAL title and a state championship — are still in front of them.
The 1996 Greyhounds showed that a regular-season loss — no matter how big an upset it is — doesn’t have to define a team.
The 2020 Crusaders can do the same.
Michael McGarry’s Must Win column appears Fridays in The Press.