ABSECON — Friday night. A packed house. A student dressed up as Moses with a sea of crimson-clad classmates behind him under the home basket. On the opposite side, a rival student section dressed in its Sunday best raucously cheering for the boys in green-and-white. Plenty at stake in the Cape-Atlantic League National Conference race. What more could a high school basketball fan ask for?

Mainland came into Holy Spirit’s gym and met not only a fired-up crowd, but a Spartans team that not only was fighting for second place in the conference and an automatic bid to the upcoming CAL Tournament, but a team that was feeling a little salty after Tuesday night’s 51-49 home loss to Ocean City. The Spartans raced out to a 16-6 lead to start the game and fought off several runs by Mainland before pulling away late to score a 61-47 win over the CAL National-leading Mustangs, winners of seven straight prior to Friday night.

Mainland (15-5, 9-1) took its first lead early in the third quarter, 30-29, when Ja’Quan Mace nailed a 3-pointer, but Holy Spirit (12-6, 6-3) answered with a 9-0 run to go back in front, 38-30. From there, the Spartans never trailed. Mainland was able to cut the deficit to just three points, 43-40, when Luke Mazur fed Jake Cook off a steal, but just as quickly the Spartans again got some breathing room when freshman point guard Jahir Smith drained a 3-pointer.

Holy Spirit got some big plays from senior Christian Kalinowski — including a 3-pointer and a short jumper with less than three minutes to go — to help close things out.

“Basketball is a game of runs. We had runs, they had runs, it’s all about how you respond,” Kalinowski said. “In the first half I was the leader but in the second and third quarters I kind of settled down a little bit. I thought I was sometimes making the right plays, but also making some turnovers. I had a couple big turnovers and my coach laid into me, but the whole message was I had to respond, I had to be a leader, I had to make the right plays when crunch times happens. I ended up making a couple plays down the stretch and that led to a win.”

Responding to adversity: The loss to Ocean City earlier this week was Spirit’s third conference loss and dropped the Spartans behind Cedar Creek and into third place in the CAL National, and at Thursday’s practice Spirit coach Jamie Gillespie made it clear to his team that it was gut-check time.

“I’m happy for our guys, we responded after a tough loss on Tuesday. That was a game we really let get away from us, so I’m really proud of our guys,” Gillespie said. “We challenged them pretty good last night with some of the things we saw on film, and to see the way the kids responded was a great thing. It was written on the board before the game, how would we respond when we faced adversity? Would we give in again, or would we fight through it? Would we refuse to lose? There were three minutes left in the game and I heard Jack Cella screaming, ‘refuse to lose!’ To hear that kind of stuff, as a coach, that makes you proud.”

Each time the Mustangs closed in, Spirit responded with a run to give itself some breathing room. The Spartans led 20-9 after one quarter, but a pair of threes, by Tony Tamanini and Mazur, closed the gap to 24-19. Mainland continued to chip away and trailed just 29-27 heading into halftime.

But that 9-0 run in the third quarter helped the Spartans build a 43-38 lead heading into the fourth quarter, and when Mainland trimmed the lead to 43-40, Spirit ripped off a 7-0 run to jump out to a 10-0 lead. Again Mainland responded, as a three from Mace brought the Mustangs to within 50-47, but Kalinowski’s 5-0 run by himself put the Spartans up 55-47.

“For the most part we maintained our composure,” Gillespie said. “A little bit in the second quarter we made some turnovers and let them get back into the game after our great start, but overall I was proud of the way we responded to being in tough spots.”

“Every single time, we knew in our heads there was no way we were walking out of this gym tonight losing. That was my mindset coming in. I said to someone else there’s no way I’m walking out of this gym with a loss tonight,” said Kalinowski, who finished with 16 points. “Even when I made mistakes and turnovers, I knew I had to step up and make the right play. I had to lead the team. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of players stepped up — every one of my teammates, from the guys on the bench to the starters, everyone stepped up. The reason why we won is because everyone responded in a positive way.”

Inside presence: A big key when facing Mainland is being able to slow down senior forward Jake Cook, a football player who brings a physical brand of play to the basketball court. Gillespie decided to run the Rovillard twins, Henry and Jack, at Cook on the perimeter and use 6-foot-7 forward Joe Glenn on the inside to discourage Cook from getting any easy looks at the basket off the dribble drive. The plan worked, as Cook was limited to seven points.

“Joe was our enforcer at the rim and he altered a lot of Jake’s shots, and the Rovillard boys, both Jack and Henry, did a great job on Cook all night. They made every shot he took hard, and Joe’s presence around the rim certainly altered things,” Gillespie said. “This gives us confidence that we can play well. We haven’t played well in all four quarters in a lot of games this year and I thought tonight we played pretty close to it. I think that’s the takeaway for us — when we play well we can play with anybody, and beat anybody. We’ll take the win, we’ll enjoy the weekend, then we have a tough game at Lower on Monday.”

Electric atmosphere: Games like this one are what make high school basketball such a fun sport for fans to watch, and the intensity was there from both student sections and fan bases throughout the game. Players from both teams fed off the encouragement their respective student sections provided.

“We told a lot of people before the game started, this is what high school basketball is all about,” Gillespie said. “The environment was just electric, on both sides. Dan (Williams, Mainland’s coach) and I were talking before the game, and we said this is what high school basketball is all about. Before we went on the floor I told our kids to go out there and have fun and enjoy what it is.”

Added Kalinowsk, “This was a great atmosphere. Walking out of the locker room I saw a whole sea of red, and on the other side I saw a bunch of kids in shirts and ties yelling at us. But I loved every second of it. I love playing in games like this. I love the highs, I love the lows. It’s what basketball is all about.”

Stats: Henry Rovillard led the way for Spirit with 17 points, including three 3-pointers, Kalinowski finished with 16 points and Glenn and Jack Rovillard combined for 13 points. Mazur led Mainland with 20 points, including four 3-pointers, and Mace added 10 points. In all, the teams combined to make 16 threes.

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

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