CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE - The Middle Township High School boys basketball team seemed destined to win Friday night.
With the right to host the South Jersey Group II title game on the line, the Panthers played a sloppy game against Medford Tech but still managed to tie it with five straight points in the final minutes.
Tom Catanoso scored, Jacob Cowan stole the ball in the backcourt a few seconds later and Darrell Shelton made a 3-pointer from the top of the key as the home crowd went wild.
But that was all the magic second-seeded Middle could muster as No. 3 Medford Tech scored the game's final nine points to win 53-44 and end the senior-laden Panthers' season in the South Jersey semifinals.
The Jaguars (18-10) will host fourth-seeded Sterling, which upset No. 1 Haddonfield, on Monday for the title.
"The crowd was so into this," Middle coach Tom Feraco said. "It just, the script, it wasn't supposed to end this way. It's sad because it was supposed to end a better way."
The top six players for the Panthers (21-7) are seniors, and they had aspirations of a second South Jersey title in three years and perhaps more. The players stayed in the locker room long after the final whistle while a large group of fans waited on the court to cheer them one last time. Feraco said the players simply didn't want to take off their jerseys.
"I've never seen (a locker room) like this because these kids have been together so long," Feraco said.
Medford Tech took the lead late in the first quarter and never trailed after that, thanks in part to a huge night by 6-foot-4 junior guard Eli Cain, a Division I prospect. Cain had 26 points, seven rebounds, two steals and one block. Sophomore Myles Powell added 19 points.
Middle trailed by eight early in the fourth quarter but chipped away at the lead until Shelton's 3-pointer tied it with 2 minutes, 5 seconds to go. Shelton finished with 14 points.
But just eight seconds later, Cain drew a foul at the other end and made 1-of-2 free throws to put Medford Tech back ahead. The Jaguars clamped down on defense for the rest of the game.
"When they tied it, we kept our focus," Cain said. "We looked at each other right in the eyes and said, 'We got this.' We went out and got it."
Medford Tech had lost to the Panthers in the playoffs each of the past two seasons. Middle pulled the upset in a 6-vs.-3 matchup last year in the quarterfinals. The Panthers beat Medford Tech in the South Jersey final the previous season.
"We felt like third time was a charm," Cain said. "We had to get them back."
Middle struggled throughout the game. The Panthers missed eight of their first nine free throws and shot 5-for-16 for the game from the line. Several times they drove to the basket only to have layups rim out. They also had some uncharacteristic turnovers.
"We were a lot better on the defensive end (than the past two years)," said Medford Tech coach Nick Powell (no relation to Myles). "It's defense. Let's cut the (nonsense). It's defense."
Feraco said he was disappointed that the Middle Township community would not get the opportunity to host the South Jersey final.
The gym was packed Friday and the crowd was loud throughout the game, led by a rowdy student section.
"They've got a hell of a crowd," Cain said. "I see why they keep winning at home."
Feraco said he was proud of all that his seniors accomplished in their careers.
The Panthers don't have one star player, and none of their starters is taller than 6-foot-3, but they went to the Cape-Atlantic League final and South Jersey semifinals in each of the past two seasons.
"They're not the most talented, but they're the nicest kids, the toughest kids, and it's their grit and determination that we'll always remember," Feraco said. "That was the stamp that they put on this program."
Contact Jason Mazda:
Medford Tech 13 15 10 15-53
Middle Township 9 11 11 13-44
MED-Ali 3 2-3 8, Cain 7 9-12 26, Powell 7 2-2 19, Jones 0 0-0 0, Tunstall 0 0-0 0. Totals 17 13-17 53.
MID-Shelton 5 0-3 14, Catanoso 3 2-4 9, Feraco 4 0-3 9, Moore 2 0-0 4, Greer 1 3-6 5, Cowan 1 0-0 3. Totals 16 5-16 44.
3-pointers-Powell (3), Cain (3) MED; Shelton (4), Feraco, Cowan, Catanoso MID.
Records-Medford Tech 18-10, Middle 21-7.