Coach Dan Williams of the Mainland Regional High School boys basketball team looked at the current Mustangs on Sunday and saw himself and his friends from 24 years ago.
The top-seeded Mustangs (18-10) host second-seeded Delsea Regional (20-9) in the South Jersey Group III title game at 6 tonight.
It is the first time since 1990 that Mainland has appeared in a South Jersey final. Williams played for that Mainland team. Mainland hasn't won a South Jersey boys basketball championship since 1981. The Mustangs lost to Highland 78-75 in the 1990 final.
Former Mainland coach Jon Evans, who also played on the 1990 team, joined Williams and the Mustangs at practice Sunday.
"That was a lot of back and forth in the gym at practice (Sunday)," Williams said. "The kids were giving it to me and Jon, saying they'd like to finish off something we couldn't do. It's been fun."
To do what their coach and his teammates couldn't accomplish, the current Mustangs will have to win a game that will be a contrast in styles.
Mainland wants to slow the tempo and have the final score in the 40s or the 50s.
"I want our guys to think the game is going to be in the 30s," Williams said. "If we think that way, maybe we can hold Delsea to the 40s or 50s."
Delsea Regional wants to push the pace and get the score as high as possible. The Crusaders are averaging 84 points in their three tournament wins. Delsea is 15-1 when it scores 65 or more points.
Mainland relies on the inside play of 6-foot-6 senior Darius Jerkins (18.5 points per game, 11.7 rebounds per game) and 6-2, 295-pound senior Kenny Randall (9.5 rpg). Delsea features 6-3 junior swingman Keith Braxton (19.8 ppg), who is averaging 26 points in the Crusaders' three state tournament victories. Brothers Kwame and Kaleb Morton also spark Delsea. Kwame (15.4 ppg) scored 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in Delsea's 90-73 semifinal win over Ocean City. Kaleb (12.4 ppg) contributed 19 points in the win.
"We have to find them in transition," Williams said. "Even if we're successful in slowing tempo, they're going to get out in transition. Kwame flies up and down the court. We need to impede his progress down court and throw his rhythm off."
Mainland's success has created a buzz in the school and its community. Before this season, the Mainland seniors had never even played in a playoff game. Fans packed the Mustangs' gym to watch their 51-39 semifinal win over Central Regional on Friday. The gym should be packed again tonight.
"I couldn't envision a better scenario than to be lucky enough to have a game at home for a championship," Williams said. "Darius is going to play Braxton, and I wouldn't be surprised if Braxton played Darius. That's what you want to have. The two best guys playing against each other with a chance to win a championship. We're lucky enough to have it at our place. How much better can it get than that?"
Contact Michael McGarry: