CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE - The Middle Township High School boys basketball team won its ninth South Jersey title under coach Tom Feraco on Monday night.
But the Panthers never celebrated a championship such as they did Monday's win. Middle won a sectional title in front of its home fans for the first time.
Middle dominated the first quarter and held off Medford Tech to win the South Jersey Group II championship 56-51. Middle (28-2) will play Central Jersey champion Ewing in a state semifinal 7 p.m. Wednesday at Perth Amboy High School.
Middle's Marcus Harmon tossed the ball into the air right before the final buzzer sounded. The Middle student section then ran onto the court and mobbed the players.
"It's the best feeling ever," Middle senior guard Wayne Lennon said. "For the fans to rush the court was just great. I loved it. I never imagined it would be like that."
Middle's previous eight championships were won at neutral sites.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association in 2009-10 began allowing the higher seed to host public school sectional finals because it had trouble finding non-participating schools to host them.
"This one jumps right to the top," Feraco said, "because it's done on our home court in front of our great community and great school."
Middle, No. 1 in The Press Elite 11, validated its season with Monday's win. The Panthers did not win the Cape-Atlantic League, so if they had lost Monday, they would have won no championships.
"If we lose (Monday) and finish 27-3, its just means you won a lot of games," Feraco said. "As much as that record would have looked beautiful, we wouldn't have achieved (anything) because we would have the lost the CAL and South Jersey."
Middle's gym was packed an hour before tipoff. Fifth-seeded Medford Tech (23-6) seemed overwhelmed by the setting. The second-seeded Panthers built an insurmountable 19-4 lead in the first quarter.
"We hadn't lost at home all season, and we wanted to keep it that way," Middle forward Shai Henry (13 points, eight rebounds) said.
Middle guard Garret Kerr, who was slowed by a fever, scored eight of his 12 points in the first eight minutes.
The 6-foot-3 Kerr might not have been feeling his best, but he still made the play of the game. Kerr stole a pass in the first quarter and dribbled the length of the court for a one-handed dunk that brought roars from the crowd.
Henry also sparked the Panthers' fast start with five first-quarter points. Forward Marcus Harmon (19 points) ended Middle's scoring in the first quarter with a 3-pointer.
The game was sloppy from the second quarter on. Middle maintained a double-digit advantage. The Panthers led by as many as 18 in the third quarter.
Middle did have an anxious last minute, however. Harmon sank 1-of-2 free throws with 1 minute, 1 second left in the game to give Middle a 54-41 lead.
Medford Tech then took advantage of some Middle turnovers to go on a 10-2 run. Donte Martinez's 3-pointer cut the lead to five with 6.1 seconds left.
After Medford Tech called its last timeout, Middle inbounded the ball to Harmon, who dribbled out the clock.
This is Middle's first South Jersey title since 2003. The Panthers are trying to win their first state title since 2002.
This group of Middle seniors had been building toward Monday's championship for three years. Several players, most notable Henry and Harmon, played as sophomores. Middle lost in the quarterfinals two years ago and in the semifinals last year.
Kerr gave the Panthers a boost when he transferred to Middle from Moorestown last summer. Kerr was no stranger to Middle. He grew up in Avalon and played basketball with several of the Panthers as a youngster.
"We finally got it," Lennon said.
Contact Michael McGarry:
Medford Tech 4 9 11 27-51
Middle Township 19 11 7 19-56
MED - Sutton 4 3-5 13, Martinez 3 0-0 7, Carey 4 1-2 10, Cooper 5 2-2 13, Lawson 2 0-0 4, Chukwuocha 2 0-0 4. Totals 20 6-9 51.
MT - Kerr 3 5-7 12, Harmon 4 9-11 19, Henry 6 1-4 13, Allen 0 0-2 0, Lennon 2 2-2 7, Woodlin 1 1-3 3, Smith 0 2-2 2. Totals 16 20-31 56.
3-pointers - Sutton (2), Martinez, Carey, Cooper MED. Kerr, Harmon (2), Lennon
Records - Medford Tech 23-6; Middle Township 28-2