WILLINGBORO — The Middle Township High School boys basketball team didn’t win, but gave an effort that defined its season Saturday afternoon.
After one quarter, the Panthers trailed Willingboro, the favorite to win the state Group II championship, by 16 points. The home Willingboro crowd roared with each basket the Chimeras scored.
A lopsided defeat seemed inevitable.
But Middle rallied and took the lead, only to see Willingboro regain its advantage.
The Panthers couldn’t make a second comeback.
Second-seeded Willingboro held off sixth-seeded Middle to win the South Jersey Group II semifinal 55-47.
“They jumped on us and the crowd jumped on us,” said Middle Township guard Darrell Shelton. “After a while we got it together and got the will come back.”
Willingboro (26-2), No. 4 in The Press Elite 11, will play fourth-seeded Haddonfield for the South Jersey Group II title on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Middle finishes the season 18-11.
Saturday’s game was typical of the grittiness the undersized Panthers showed all season.
“It was the heart of these kids and our league (Cape-Atlantic League),” coach Tom Feraco said when asked what got Middle back in the game. “Our league has enabled us to be battle tested.”
Willingboro, which played without standout guard Tyrell Maloney (out with personal issues), overmatched Middle in the first quarter. The Chimeras’ trapping defense forced seven Middle turnovers and Willingboro converted many of those miscues into easy baskets.
The Chimeras also sank three of four 3-point attempts in the first quarter, including one by Joseph Ricks at the buzzer that gave Willingboro a 20-4 lead.
“We underestimated the disruptiveness of Willingboro’s three big kids,” Feraco said. “We didn’t think they were that fast. Give them credit. They turned us over.”
Middle rallied with accurate outside shooting. LaMarr Greer sank a 3-pointer with three seconds left in the second quarter to cut Willingboro’s lead to 26-17.
The Panthers then sank their first four 3-point attempts of the second half, including three by Shelton (13 points).
Shelton tied the game at 29 with a 3-pointer with 4 minutes, 21 seconds left in the third. Middle took its first lead with 3:07 left on Greer’s driving layup.
But Willingboro quickly responded. The Chimeras finished the third quarter with a 6-0 run to build a 35-31 lead. Willingboro never trailed again.
Middle got within two points of Willingboro three times in the fourth quarter, but could not take the lead.
Guard Ron Paden, who is headed to St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, sank 9-of-9 fourth-quarter free throws to clinch the victory. Willingboro shot 21 foul shots for the game and Middle shot just two, and those came with five seconds left.
Willingboro, a perennial power, will now try to win the first South Jersey title in the program’s history.
Middle returned no starters from last season’s team, which won the South Jersey Group II title. Still, the Panthers accomplished much this season. They went 7-0 against Cape May County teams, won a Boardwalk Basketball Classic title, beat St. Augustine and Holy Spirit and reached the final of the CAL tournament.
“It was a very successful season,” Feraco said. “It’s season where we’re really proud of hard-working kids.”
Contact Michael McGarry:
Middle Township 4 13 14 16—47
Willingboro 20 6 9 20—55
MT—Shelton 5 0-0 13, Greer 3 0-0 8, Feraco 6 1-2 14, Catonoso 3 0-0 8, Barber 2 0-0 4. Totals—19 1-2 47.
W—Robbins 3 0-0 7, Ricks 3 2-2 9, Paden 3 11-13 18, Owens 2 4-4 8, Houston 2 2-2 6, Counts 3 0-0 7. Totals— 19-121.
3-pointers—Shelton (3), Greer (2), Catonoso (2), Feraco MT; Robbins, Ricks, Paden, Counts W.
Records—Middle 18-11; Willingboro 26-2.