HAMMONTON - The Hammonton High School boys basketball team regained its composure Thursday just in time to avoid an upset loss in the South Jersey Group III tournament.
The top-seeded Blue Devils (21-6) coughed up a 15-point lead, but rallied down the stretch to post a 58-55 victory over eighth-seeded Kingsway Regional (15-12) in a thrilling quarterfinal game.
"That's playoff basketball," Hammonton coach Joe Martino said. "We were lucky to get out with a win. Hopefully, the kids learned a lesson from this."
Hammonton, which has never won a South Jersey championship, will host Timber Creek in the semifinals at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Senior forward Christian Mortellite kept the Blue Devils' season alive by scoring the winning points against Kingsway with 38 seconds left in regulation.
Trailing the Dragons 55-54, Mortellite drove past two Kingsway defenders along the baseline off an inbounds pass and banked in a shot that put the Blue Devils ahead 56-55.
"When you're a senior and a captain, you want the ball in your hands in that situation," Mortellite said. "We ran our go-to inbounds play called 'Line.' There was no doubt in my mind I was going to score."
Kingsway opted to run the clock down to the final seconds before senior forward Euriel Thwaites III launched a baseline jumper that caromed off the front of the rim with five seconds remaining in regulation.
Blue Devils forward Justin Harris snared the rebound, was fouled and converted a pair of foul shots for a three-point lead at 58-55. The Dragons had a chance to force overtime, but Ray Lawry's 3-point attempt from just inside the half-court line missed.
"I ran the clock down because I wanted us to have the last shot of the game," Kingsway coach Drew Givens said. "The kids had fought so hard to come back and I wanted the game to end with us missing or us scoring."
A dramatic ending didn't seem likely earlier in the second half. Trey Hughey's 3-pointer midway through the third quarter gave the Blue Devils a 45-30 lead and induced a series of creative cheers from Hammonton's 50-member student section.
But just when a rout appeared imminent, the Dragons turned up their defensive pressure and the Blue Devils couldn't handle it. Kingsway embarked on a 23-7 run that turned the Hammonton fans' knuckles as white as their T-shirts. Thwaites capped the surge with a free throw that gave Kingsway a 53-52 lead with 1:44 to go.
"I knew we could pressure them, but I didn't want to do it too early in the game," Givens said. "That was something I wanted to keep in my back pocket until the second half. We played a little too chaotic in the first half, but I knew our kids would battle back."
Harris led the Blue Devils with 20 points. Mortellite added 17 points, but was held scoreless in the second half until his go-ahead basket.
Lawry topped Kingsway with 21 points, including five 3-pointers. Raekwon Mingledoff finished with 14.
"The important thing is that we stayed together through the bad times and it paid off for us in the end," Mortellite said. "We stayed together as a family and we got the win."
Contact David Weinberg:
Kingsway 15 12 15 13 - 55
Hammonton 18 21 11 8 - 58
K-Lawry 6 4-5 21, Pollick 0 2-2 2, Thwaites 4 2-4 10, Mingledoff 4 6-9 14, Matthews 1 2-4 4, Mayes 2 0-0 4. Totals 17 16-24 55.
H-Harris 8 4-4 20, Push 1 0-0 3, Costa 2 0-0 5, Porteons 1 3-5 5, Mortellite 6 3-3 17, Hughey 2 3-3 8. Totals 20 13-15 58.
RECORDS-Kingsway 15-12; Hammonton 21-6.