OCEAN COUNTY, N.J. - Gloucester Catholic wasn't even supposed to be here.
Saddled with a so-so record, a four-game losing streak to close the regular season, and a fourth seed, the Rams' weren't likely to be playing second-seeded Cardinal McCarrick in the final of the NJSIAA Non-Public South B boys' basketball tournament.
But there they were Wednesday night, trading shots with the Eagles, who had dethroned mighty Trenton Catholic, proving that come tournament time, a team that plays stellar defense and makes free throws when they count can turn from a pumpkin into Cinderella in a hurry.
Fourth-seeded Gloucester Catholic, which upset top seed St. Rose of Belmar on Monday, played the same game against McCarrick; however, the Rams came up on the short side of a 40-38 final.
"We had a Cinderella run," Gloucester Catholic coach Todd Powers said shortly after the Rams' Mike Okafor launched a 40-foot shot that fell short in the final seconds.
Neither Okafor nor the rest of the starting five made it into double figures in a low-scoring game of spurts. No McCarrick player reached double digits, either.
"They took to this underdog role the last two weeks of this tournament, and they almost got us to our first trip to the state final in 39 years," Powers said.
McCarrick's reward is to face the winner of the North B final between St. Patrick and St. Anthony, two undefeated teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation, respectively, in USA Today's Top 25, in the state final Saturday.
Unfortunately for Gloucester Catholic (15-13), which made its third trip to the South Jersey final in the 36-year history of the tournament, the magic that had worked against St. Rose in a 50-40 win didn't return against McCarrick (21-7).
However, the Rams' man defense kept the game close for the most part and gave them a chance to win at the end.
"The flow was terrible," McCarrick coach Joe Lewis said. "We wanted the game to be in the 60s. We usually play in the 60s. We just played to their tempo.
"We wanted the game much more up-tempo than what it was. It's a credit to them getting back on defense."
McCarrick led, 26-23, entering the fourth period, spurted to a 34-25 lead, and saw it dwindle to 36-35 in the final minute as senior Kevin Cano sank a pair of free throws.
At the line, the Rams were 8 for 10 in the final quarter and 9 for 12 in the game.
"The defense on both sides was ridiculous," Gloucester Catholic junior guard Robbie Alessandrine said. "It was intense.
"In the second period, I guess nerves got to us a little bit. We got uncomfortable with their defense. We couldn't get the ball into our sets."
In that quarter, the Rams' Mike Scharle scored the only basket for his team early in the period for a 13-7 lead. By intermission, the Eagles led, 14-13.
Alessandrine, who usually scores in double figures, ended the game with a game-high nine points, equaled by McCarrick point guard Ahmid Williams.
Alessandrine said that McCarrick's Jeremy Cruz played him so tightly that he had trouble getting the ball into the hoop.
Both teams had come out cold, and the first basket wasn't made until 4 minutes, 39 seconds remained in the opening period. Gloucester Catholic's Ryan Schoppy scored on a drive to the hoop, was fouled, and failed to convert the three-point play.
Gloucester Catholic 11 2 10 15 – 38
Cardinal McCarrick 7 7 12 14 – 40
GC: Robbie Alessandrine 9, Kevin Cano 8, Steve Mainart 4, Mike Okafor 7, Mike Scharle 2, Mike Shawaryn 6, Ryan Schoppy 2.
CM: Jumanne McDaniel 5, Will Thomas 4, Marques Townes 8, Ahmid Williams 9, Jeremy Cruz 8, Charles Gorman 6.