ABSECON — It’s way too early to start talking about must-win games, but Monday night’s matchup against rival Atlantic City had the feel of a game the Holy Spirit boys basketball team really needed. The Spartans had a tough matchup in their season-opening loss against Wildwood Catholic and struggled offensively, scoring just 38 points. They picked up a win over the weekend against Vineland at the Ocean City Tipoff Weekend showcase event, but beating Atlantic City at home right before Christmas certainly would make a statement.

Spirit was able to get the job done, outlasting the Vikings through a wild, back-and-forth final quarter that featured seven lead changes before Christian Kalinowski’s driving layup with 1:11 left gave the Spartans the lead for good in a 54-48 victory.

Kalinowski scored just six points on a pair of 3-pointers in the first half, but came to life in the second half, pouring in 14 points and hitting some critical shots as the Spartans improved to 2-1. His play at the end of the third quarter may have been the game changer, as he nailed a three from the left corner as time expired off an inbounds play to pull Spirit to within 39-37 entering the fourth quarter. He also finished things off by scoring on a runout pass from Jack Cella with less than 20 seconds to go to give Spirit a 52-48 lead.

Maybe it was getting drilled in the eye with a wayward elbow that got Kalinowski fired up on the offensive end.

“I went up for a rebound and Byard hit me with an elbow. It was unintentional, so it wasn’t a big deal and I just had to play through it,” said Kalinowski, who finished with a game-high 20 points, including four 3-pointers. “I think our team played well collectively, but I felt like I wasn’t involved. It wasn’t on (my teammates), I just wasn’t getting myself involved enough. I knew in order for us to win I had to put some points up on the board and be more aggressive offensively.”

“His play was huge and everyone who came off the bench tried to find him because we knew he was hitting. He was just huge for us,” said Cella, another senior. “It’s huge. Confidence, all-around, it was a big win for us. Wildwood Catholic, we did play physical against them, but offensively we stunk and couldn’t make any shots. This was definitely gutsy and a big win for us all around, so we’re excited.”

Back-and-fourth: The fourth quarter was a see-saw battle as each team answered the other’s plays on the offensive end of the floor. The score was tied, 41-41, with 5:25 remaining, and here’s a quick look at how things unfolded:

Kalinowski hits freshman point guard Jahmir Smith for a layup (Spirit 43-41); Nasaan Blakeley drains a 3-pointer (Atlantic City 44-43); Cella hits a jumper with 4 minutes left (Spirit 45-44); Stephen Byard hits a pair of free throws (Atlantic City 46-45); Kalinowski with a jumper (Spirit 47-46); Kiraan Palms putback (Atlantic City 48-47); Kalinowski layup (Spirit 49-48); Cella with a steal, feeds Henry Rovillard, who is fouled and makes 1-of-2 free throws (Spirit 50-48); Smith ties up Byard in the paint with 28 seconds left and the jump ball possession arrow favors Spirit; Cella gets the inbounds pass and hits Kalinowski for a runout layup (Spirit 52-48).

“He might not have scored a lot or had a lot of assists, but he’s a scrappy kid and a great player,” Kalinowski said of Smith. “He’s going to really good the next four years in this Cape-Atlantic League and I really love him as our starting point guard. He does a lot of little things — stealing the ball, taking care of the ball, pressuring the ball, just doing everything.”

“It just came down to who had the will to do it, and we just wanted it more,” Cella said. “We didn’t want to do anything stupid at the end that would cost us a chance to win. We definitely wanted to win this game, it’s a huge rivalry game, so we just wanted to get it done.”

Much-needed victory: Even though it’s technically just the second week of the season, this victory may go a long way for Holy Spirit’s confidence. The Spartans feature a nearly entirely new lineup that includes a freshman point guard, and Kalinowski said Atlantic City provided a litmus test for the Spartans.

“I just knew I was not going to lose to this A.C. team again. I wanted to beat them so bad, and I would do anything to beat them. This is a great rivalry. My freshman year coming in, this was the biggest game that we all talked about, A.C. vs. Spirit. Being able to come out here as a senior and beating them, it’s a great thing for our school and I’m really happy we got the win,” he said. “We had a tough loss against Wildwood Catholic but we wanted to show everyone that we are a contender in the Cape-Atlantic League, and we want to be at Stockton playing in the final. We wanted to prove to everyone that we’re a good team and when we play together we can do anything.”

What’s next: Holy Spirit takes on Delcastle Tech (Del) on Dec. 26 at 5 p.m. at the Boardwalk Classic in Wildwood.

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

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