LINWOOD - The seniors of the Mainland Regional High School boys basketball team never played in a state tournament game before this season.
Now, they're in a South Jersey final - something no other Mustangs boys basketball team had achieved in 24 years.
The inside combination of Kenny Randall and Darius Jerkins overpowered Central Regional as the Mustangs won the South Jersey Group III semifinal 51-39 Friday night. Top-seeded Mainland (18-10) will host second-seeded Delsea Regional in the sectional final at 6 p.m. Monday.
"This is an amazing feeling," Jerkins said. "We're taking it game by game, but every game is exciting."
The 6-foot-6 Jerkins scored 20 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked two shots. The 6-3, 295-pound Randall scored 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds. Mainland did not sink a 3-pointer Friday night.
"Darius and I have been playing basketball together since the eighth grade," Randall said. "We know each other's tendencies. Our guards know our tendencies. They give us the ball. They know what we can do, and we make it happen."
The Mainland guards almost have no choice but to get the ball inside. Mustangs coach Dan Williams joked that Jerkins and Randall are big enough to get their way.
"When (Jerkins and Randall) are in the locker room, saying, 'Get me the ball down low,' the rest of the kids are going to defer to them 95 percent of the time," Williams said with a laugh.
Fans packed Mainland's gym to watch the Mustangs play the 12th-seeded Golden Eagles (7-13). A large and enthusiastic Mustangs student section stood across from the Mainland bench and chanted "Let's go, Mainland! Let's go, Mainland!"
"There's a difference in the stands," Williams said. "People are super excited."
Central Regional, however, tested Mainland's nerves early. The Golden Eagles, from Bayville in Ocean County, sank 3-of-4 3-point attempts and led 17-8 after the first quarter. But Central made just 1-of-12 shots from the beyond the arc the rest of the game.
"They can shoot, and they can shoot well from farther out than most guards," Williams said of the Golden Eagles. "I don't think our guards were prepared (early) for how far their range was."
Jerkins did not score in the first quarter and had just six points at halftime. But he began to control the game in the third quarter. He scored Mainland's first four baskets of the second half as the Mustangs built a five-point lead. All of his shots came in the lane.
"We needed to pick the intensity up," Jerkins said. "I tried to come out with more intensity in the second half. My teammates did the same thing."
In the fourth quarter, Jerkins scored off an inbounds pass and made two foul shots to put Mainland up 37-28 with 6 minutes, 26 seconds left in the game.
Mustangs guard Drew Dalzell sank 6-of-8 foul shots in the final 3 minutes, 35 seconds to help clinch the win.
Delsea Regional beat 14th-seeded Ocean City 90-73 in Friday's other semifinal. The Mustangs haven't been to a South Jersey final since 1990. Williams played for that team. Mainland hasn't won a South Jersey championship since 1981.
After Friday's win, the Mainland students stood in from the of the Mustangs' locker room and made a path for the players to walk through. The students high-fived the players and patted them on the back as they passed by. It was a scene that showed just how state tournament runs can unite a school.
"I had the chills walking through the line," Randall said. "I love everyone who comes here."
Contact Michael McGarry:
Central Regional 17 7 4 11 - 39
Mainland Regional 8 15 10 18 - 51
CR - Collins 2 2-2 7, Drum 1 0-0 2, Forrester 2 0-0 5, Minale 2 0-0 5, Lang 4 2-4 10, Rhoden 1 1-2 4, Arneth 0 2-2 2, Smith 1 0-0 2, Hardy 1 0-0 2. Totals 14 7-10 39.
ML - Jackson 0 0-0 0, Dalzell 0 6-8 6, Riska 1 2-3 4, Jerkins 9 2-3 20, Randall 5 5-6 15, McLaughlin 2 0-0 4, Devenney 1 0-0 2. Totals 18 15-20 51.
3-pointers – CR – Collins, Forrester, Minale, Rhoden.
Records – Central Regional 7-13; Mainland Regional 18-10