ABSECON — All eyes will be on Wildwood Catholic’s boys basketball team this winter as the Crusaders are coming off a 27-2 season, were ranked No. 3 in nj.com’s preseason Top 20 poll, and are scheduled to play against The Patrick School in early February in a game that will be televised nationally by ESPNU. They’ll be playing in the same showcase event that will feature Bronny James, son of NBA star LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers.

All eyes were on the Crusaders inside Holy Spirit High School’s cozy gymnasium on Thursday night in the season opener for both teams, as fans wanted to get a look at highly touted Wildwood Catholic — which features several high level NCAA Division I recruits — as well as how the scrappy Spartans might stack up.

For the first half, at least, Spirit gave Wildwood Catholic all it could handle, but an 8-0 run to start the third quarter helped the Crusaders get some distance and eventually score a 56-38 victory. Despite the win, Crusaders coach David DeWeese was not at all happy about how his team executed, especially in its half-court offense.

“To be honest, I can’t even think about the defense. I thought we played so poorly on the offensive end of the floor that I’m not really even considering what we did defensively,” he said. “They have not bought in to what we’re selling offensively, and they are doing their own thing. It’s not working, obviously, so we have to go back to the drawing board and continue to work. We have a long way to go. We’re not there yet. We’re just clearly not there yet.”

“Offensively, I was just rushing a lot, the team was rushing and we couldn’t run our offense, really. But it was the first game, we’ll work on things and get ready for the next game. We just had to slow it down a little bit and get good shots,” said senior forward Taj Thweatt, a West Virginia University recruit. “Today was a little rough on offense — I have to slow it down and take better shots. I couldn’t hit a three today. It felt good but it wasn’t falling.”

Despite the offensive struggles, the Crusaders still got a combined 42 points from Thweatt and Jahlil White, a Temple recruit. Thweatt led all scorers with 22 points, and included a few blocked shots and dunks for good measure.

Solid start: The Spartans got off to a good start, as senior Jack Cella nailed a 3-pointer on Spirit’s first possession, and Holy Spirit was within 15-13 after one quarter. It looked as though Wildwood Catholic might turn on the afterburners when Thweatt threw down a monster jam to give the Crusaders an early 5-3 lead, but the Spartans hung tough with a scrappy defense that helped create some turnovers, and some good rebounding from big man Joe Glenn.

“I thought we did a great job, certainly in the first quarter. I was really proud of our guys with their physical effort, obviously playing against an elite team like that. I thought physically we matched them,” said Holy Spirit coach Jamie Gillespie. “What we talked to the kids about was that we really lost the game on the offensive end and our inability to run offenses, and them taking us out of that. We’re going to learn from that and work at it.”

Holy Spirit leaned on its veterans in the first half and got a combined 13 points from Glenn and Cella, and trailed just 29-21 heading into halftime.

Turning it up on defense: The third quarter was a different story for Wildwood Catholic defensively, as the Crusaders held the Spartans without a point for nearly five minutes, and an 8-0 run was finally snapped by a driving layup from Spirit’s Elijah Steward. That defensive lockdown turned a 29-21 lead into a 37-23 advantage.

“I don’t think they did anything differently than they did in the first half. You get tired and your legs go, but it was more so us forcing things that weren’t there. I think that’s the biggest takeaway for me from an offensive perspective,” Gillespie said. “We have to get better at executing and running stuff through, and not settling for one-on-one plays — especially against a team like that, where it’s so hard to finish around the basket because they have such big kids and are so athletic.”

“Coach kind of laid into us at the half and told us we needed to pick it up, so we came out strong in the second half,” Thweatt said. “We don’t like him yelling at us, so we tried to pick it up. We just have to take our time running plays. We’re kind of rushing. This was a game to see how we are and see what we need to work on.”

Accentuate the positives: Coach Gillespie said he was impressed with the effort his boys gave, particularly in the first half, and believes the Spartans have a foundation to build on. Glenn finished with a team-high 13 points while Cella added nine and Henry Rouillard chipped in seven.

“I thought we battled hard tonight and overall I thought we did a good job. We’ll learn from it. I can’t say enough about our kids’ physical effort. You saw the compete in them in that first quarter; we really competed with them tooth-and-nail in that first quarter,” Gillespie said. “Overall, there are a lot of positives for us. It’s easy to look at the scoreboard and say it’s all negative, but we have some young kids out there playing and they are going to learn from their mistakes. We have two more games right away, Vineland on Sunday and Atlantic City on Monday.”

A player to watch going forward is Holy Spirit freshman point guard Jahmir Smith, who although he committed some turnovers, showed some flashes of what he might be capable of down the road.

“He’s going to be alright. It’s a learning process. It’s unfortunate he had to go right into the fire against a team like that, but he’s going to be fine,” Gillespie said. “He’s a very talented kid. We’re asking him to run the point on a senior-laden team, so he just has to understand when to go and when not to go. That’s a lot to ask of him, but he’s going to be fine. We’re not worried about him.”

Pregame honor: Prior to the game, Holy Spirit held a quick ceremony in which the Spartans retired the jersey No. 41 of former star Dennis Horner. Horner scored more than 1,200 points during his career, helped the Spartans win a Cape-Atlantic League championship, and went on to play in college at North Carolina State as well as professionally in the NBA and overseas.

What’s next: Holy Spirit takes on Vineland at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday at the Ocean City PBA Tipoff Weekend at Ocean City High School. Wildwood Catholic takes on Notre Dame on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Ocean City PBA Tipoff Weekend.

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

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