LINWOOD — The Mainland Regional High School boys basketball team thrilled its fans with a gutsy comeback Monday night.

The Mustangs rattled Delsea Regional and grabbed the momentum.

Mainland did everything but take the lead.

That slipped through the Mustangs’ hands.

Delsea Regional staved off the Mainland rally and won the South Jersey Group III title game 54-53. Mustangs center Darius Jerkins sparked the Mainland comeback with 11 of his game-high 26 points in the fourth quarter.

“This is a resilient bunch,” Mainland coach Dan Williams said of his players. “I’m just glad the kids got to play in this whole atmosphere. I’m glad they showed everybody they’re tough and they’re not going to lay down.”

Mainland had the ball with a chance to win in the final seconds.

Kenny Randall drove left from the top of the key and shot a 3-footer in traffic that rolled off the rim. The rebound seemed about to land in Jerkins’ hands, but the ball bounced off his fingertips. A scramble ensued. Players dove across the floor. Neither team could possess the ball. Mainland did not get another shot as time ran out.

“It’s frustrating,” Jerkins said. “That’s the shot I wanted right there. I wanted the ball in my hands. I had it for a second, but I couldn’t grasp it.”

Fans from both schools packed Mainland’s gym.

The top-seeded Mustangs were playing in their first South Jersey final since 1990. Mainland has not won a South Jersey boys basketball championship since 1981. The second-seeded Delsea boys were trying to win their first sectional boys basketball championship since 1991.

Delsea appeared headed for an easy win. The Crusaders built a lead in the second quarter. Delsea combined the inside moves of Keith Braxton (14 points) with the 3-point shooting of Kwame Morton (11 points) and Ronnie Russell (18 points).

Mainland controlled the pace, but the Mustangs struggled to score. They were 1-of-12 from 3-point range. Delsea led by 13 with 33 seconds left in the third quarter.

The Mustangs then slowly grinded their way back into the game. Jerkins scored six straight points in the lane. The Mustangs’ fans roared with each basket. Mainland guard Sam Jackson sank two foul shots to cut the Delsea lead to 46-41 with 5 minute, 1 second left.

Delsea’s poor shot selection helped Mainland rally. The Crusaders played as if they were behind in the fourth quarter. They took six 3-point shots in the final eight minutes and made just one.

But the Crusaders sank 5-of-6 foul shots in the final 1:36 to preserve their lead.

However, the Mustangs never stopped providing thrills. Guard Matthew McLaughlin came off the bench and drove the length of the court for a layup. He was fouled and sank the free throw to cut the lead to one with 34.1 seconds left. A few seconds later, McLaughlin slapped the ball off a Delsea player to give the Mustangs one final possession.

But that’s where the comeback ended.

“This is a great experience for these kids,” Delsea coach Tom Freeman said. “It feels great to get it done. The Mainland guards are tough. They handled the pressure. They deserved to win as much as we did.”

The Mainland fans waited outside the locker room and applauded the players as they walked out. The Mustangs’ run to the South Jersey final created a buzz in the school and in its community. It is also something for the program to build on as it showed Mainland can be a basketball success.

Before this season, the Mainland seniors had never even played in a state tournament game.

“I enjoyed (the playoff run),” Williams said. “I just didn’t like the way it ended.”

Contact Michael McGarry:

609-272-7185

Delsea Regional 9 21 16 8—54

Mainland Regional 8 14 13 18—53

DR—Ka. Morton 2 3-4 7, Braxton 7 0-0 14, Kw. Morton 3 3-3 11, Russell 5 4-4 18, Avis 1 0-0 3, McDuffie 0 1-2 1. Totals 18 11-13 54.

ML—Jerkins 11 4-7 26, Randall 4 6-7 14, Jackson 1 2-2 5, Dalzell 0 3-4 3, Riska 1 0-0 2, McLaughlin 1 1-1 3. Totals 18 16-21 53.

3-pointers—DR—Kw. Morton (2), Avis, Russell (4); ML—Jackson.

Records—Delsea 22-9; Mainland 18-11

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I've worked at newspapers since 1985. Mostly in N.J., but with an eight-year pit stop in N.C. I've been at The Press since 1997.