Story: Josh Newman, Asbury Park Press
PISCATAWAY -- As the minutes and seconds started fading at the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions final on Sunday evening, Ranney had already seized control, but Bergen Catholic had already proven itself a worthy adversary.
Every shot, every play, every moment felt like it could swing momentum for good. That is how much of a high level second half these two state champions played. The Crusaders, armed with more legitimate size than most anyone else in the state, may have had an 11-point lead early in the third quarter, but it was established a long time ago that anyone wanting to get by Ranney needs to go the distance.
Outclassed for much of the first half, the Panthers persevered. Bryan Antoine and Scottie Lewis picked up the intensity, Phil Wheeler and Ahmadu Sarnor filled in around them, Alex Klatsky hit a timely 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter. All of that equated this much-hyped Ranney outfit getting to the apex of high school basketball in New Jersey, defeating Bergen Catholic, 67-63, for the program's first TOC crown.
Ranney (31-3) is the first Shore Conference team to win New Jersey's final game. Neptune's vaunted 2002 team is the only other Shore team to advance to a TOC final, where it fell to now-defunct St. Anthony of Jersey City.
"The interesting thing about the last four years is, you have folks from South Jersey who don't think we're that good because we're a Central Jersey team, and historically, we (the Shore Conference) haven't had a lot of success in the Tournament of Champions," said Ranney head coach Tahj Holden, who presided over 103 wins over the last four seasons. "You have North Jersey, who thinks we're South Jersey and not very good.
"All we've done over the course of four years is win 22 or more games every year. They've been consistently winning, and consistently winners throughout their time."
The fourth quarter began with Klatsky's triple from the right baseline for a 50-46 lead. When Lewis (20 points, 11 rebounds) got into the lane and finished at the 4:48 mark, Ranney had its largest lead of the night at 57-48. Still, the Panthers had to get to the finish line.
Phil Wheeler (14 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals) was an enigma on Sunday. He had five dunks, but gave up some stuff defensively, and was in foul trouble. With 2:46 left, Bergen Catholic's Matt Zona hit a 3-pointer, and was fouled by Wheeler. Lewis said something to Wheeler, who then went to the end of the bench. Panthers assistant John Tierney began talking Wheeler down as Zona hit the free throw to cut Ranney's lead to four.
Wheeler's fourth foul came after he picked up a technical foul earlier in the second half for getting into it with Crusaders star forward Zach Freemantle.
"I basically told him not to make it about himself in this moment," Lewis said. "'We're all in this together. No matter what happens, we're going to have your back and I know you have our back no matter what happens. I need you to focus, keep your mind right on the main goal, and let's just win.'"
Tierney got Wheeler back to the point where he was able to check back in with 1:51 left. With seven seconds remaining, Wheeler rebounded a Will Richardson miss, was fouled, then hit one of two free throws. Sarnor rebounded Wheeler's miss on the back end, was fouled, and hit his two freebies to cap the scoring.
"When he's playing with emotion and keeping it in check, he's really, really good," Holden said. "I don't think we win without him. Phil, when he's emotional and finishing at the rim, helps us be who we are."
The 103 wins over the last four years are the most for a Shore Conference senior class in recent memory, potentially ever in the TOC era, which dates back to 1989. The last two seasons saw the Panthers go 60-7, with the TOC, a Non-Public B title, a second appearance in last season's state final, and two Shore Conference Tournament wins.
This Ranney team, by any measurement you want to come up with, is immortal.
"We been saying since our last practice yesterday that this is it," Lewis said. "No matter what you do, win or lose, this is the last game representing Ranney School, representing a community that has cared about us for so long, starting in middle school."
"Every time we play, we don't play for ourselves. All of us, 20 of us including the coaches, we're playing for the people rooting for us in the stands. It's sad to come to an end, but I'd rather it be tears of joy instead of tears of sadness."
Staff writer Josh Newman: firstname.lastname@example.org; @Joshua_Newman