ABSECON — St. Augustine Prep is perennially a South Jersey powerhouse in boys basketball, and a team that has state championship aspirations every season. The Hermits, ranked No. 19 in the state by nj.com, know that every team they play is going to give it their best shot, because beating Prep certainly is a nice feather in any team’s cap.

Holy Spirit’s starting five, comprised entirely of sophomores, were not the least bit intimidated by one of the blue bloods of New Jersey high school basketball, and they gave the Hermits all they could handle for four quarters — and then some. It took a big-time effort from Prep’s experienced core of John Horner, Keith Palek and Matt Delaney down the stretch to not only keep the Hermits in the game, but allow them to pull away in overtime for a 60-53 victory.

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The teams went into the extra frame tied at 47 and were tied, 51-51, after a driving layup by Spirit’s Ky Gilliam, but moments later Delaney, a senior forward, came up with a huge three-point play that gave St. Augustine Prep a 54-51 lead — and finally the separation the Hermits needed to put the game away. Prep outscored Spirit 6-2 the rest of the way, including going 4-for-6 from the free-throw line in the final 60 seconds.

It was the season opener for St. Augustine Prep, who hadn’t played a game since March 11 of last year, when Prep beat Camden Catholic in the sectional final. A few days later, the season was shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. Delaney finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, Palek scored 13 points — including two huge 3-pointers in the fourth quarter that helped the Hermits wipe out a big deficit — and Horner chipped in with 16 points, 14 rebounds and a pair of blocked shots.

“Give them credit, they came out and played very hard and gave us a game,” Palek said. “We always say every team really wants to beat us, so we just have to stay focused and take it one game at a time.”

“As a team, we were kind of a shook on our heels, this is our first time playing a game since last March. We knew Holy Spirit had a couple games under their belt and it’s a rivalry, and at the end of the day I knew they were going to come out and want to take our heads of, and we got caught on our heels a little bit,” Delaney said. “We were lucky — in the third quarter, they came out even harder — but we were lucky to get back into our groove in the fourth quarter. It finally felt like we were back to being the team we were last March. Keith did a great job hitting those threes — I think we were something like 3-for-15 before those. Those threes really changed the game because it could have easily been a 20-point win on their side if we didn’t turn things around then.”

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Holy Spirit (1-2, 1-1 Cape-Atlantic League North) found itself down by 10 in the second quarter, but then got a big spark from Sean Kane off the bench and went on a 9-0 run to pull to within 26-25. Kane hit a 3-pointer and had a key assist during the run, and the Spartans took a 28-27 lead into halftime. They built on that in the third quarter and opened up a 41-33 lead heading into the fourth. But a missed three on Spirit’s end, followed by a pair of threes from Palek, changed the game. Suddenly, the Hermits (1-0, 0-0 CAL West) — instead of trailing by 11 were down by just three, 45-42.

The big difference down the stretch for Prep was its ability to get the ball inside to Delaney, who struggled a bit in the first half and was in some foul trouble in the third quarter. He had just four points at halftime but racked up 14 in the second half and overtime.

“(Gillespie) has five really good sophomores and I’m not taking anything away from them, they played much better than us for most of the game and they knew what they wanted to do — however, we didn’t even scrimmage and we’re one of the teams who hadn’t played (before Saturday). I thought when we got the 10-point lead in the second quarter — and give them credit, they came back — I thought we would build on that, but we didn’t,” Hermits coach Paul Rodio said. “We’re a work in progress. The freshmen played like freshmen, the sophomores played like sophomores, and the seniors, at the end, played like seniors. It took time for us. We just need to play because we have a great mixture of three, four, five seniors and a bunch of sophomores and freshmen who need some work. We’ll be OK eventually.

“(Holy Spirit) is a nice team, they just don’t have the size inside,” Rodio added. “I thought we did a good job recognizing when we were down what we had to do, and Keith shot the ball down the stretch, which he can do. He can make you pay for doubling (on Matt).”

“We have some young guards who were struggling a little bit, so the seniors had to show leadership. I knew I had to make a couple of shots to bring us back in. Kenny Selby found me on the wing and I was able to knock some down,” Palek said. “Our focus was to get the ball to Matt down on the low block. He’s one of the best players in South Jersey and when we get it down there, it’s two points almost every time. Me, John and Matt knew we had to lead these young guards, and we just had to stay focused. We got down big in the fourth, but we had to stay strong and come back. It was a hard-fought win but we got some experience from that and we got better from that. We’re going to get back to practice (on Sunday) and get ready for Vineland on Monday.”

“They have tremendous size, but our kids battled all day long. Nothing came easily for (Prep),” said Holy Spirit coach Jamie Gillespie. “Despite the fact that they got a lot of rebounds, they had to work for them and every basket they got in the paint was difficult. I’m unbelievably proud of this group and the effort the kids put forth today. We’ll take the things we did well today and learn from them. This group has a ton of potential. If we executed a little better down the stretch we probably win the game.”

Spirit got another huge performance from sophomore point guard Jahmir Smith, who led all scorers with 26 points, and Hasanur Freeman chipped in 10 points and three rebounds.

After the game, Gillespie pointed to that missed three at the start of the fourth quarter as the turning point.

“That three to start the fourth quarter rims out and if that goes down it would have opened (the lead) up to 11, and we had three or four bad decisions in terms of shots — a deep three, a penetration that we didn’t need — but that comes with being inexperienced and understanding how to finish that kind of game. But, honestly, I couldn’t be more proud of my kids and what they did today. They battled, they were down in the first half and came back,” Gillespie said. “I think we outplayed them for huge stretches of the game, so I’m proud of my kids, but it’s also a learning experience. We’re disappointed because we wanted to win the game — and we believed we could win the game — but, in the end, the takeaway is going to be we have to execute better with an eight-point lead and we have to make better decisions down the stretch. That’s part of having some young kids. I like where we are at as a group. I think we’re going to have a great rest of the year; I think we’ve proven we can play with anybody. We’re just looking forward to getting back on the court. That’s the kind of group we have — this loss won’t faze them. They’ll come back on Monday like nothing happened.”

St. Augustine Prep hosts Vineland on Monday, then had a huge home matchup against St. Joseph Academy on Wednesday at 6 p.m.

“It feels good to be out here,” Delaney said. “We have a lot of young guys who are going to be good, a lot of freshmen and sophomores who play hard and do the right thing. We’re a team with a couple seniors who have been playing together and a couple of young guards, so we just have to get the young guards rolling with the seniors. It will work out as we go along, but it’s definitely just a blessing to be back out here.”

What’s next: St. Augustine Prep hosts Vineland on Monday at 6 p.m. Holy Spirit hosts Absegami on Monday at 6 p.m.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays

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