EGG HARBOR – Some may have thought the Shawnee High School boys basketball was a year away from becoming a true championship contender.
But the Renegades have proven those people wrong.
Despite putting out a starting lineup that includes no seniors, Shawnee on Thursday advanced to the state Group 4 championship game.
The Renegades opened up a close game in fourth quarter and went on to defeat Hunterdon Central 54-49 as junior Dylan Deveney scored 18 points – 11 of them coming in the fourth quarter.
The Renegades (29-2) will play for the title Sunday at noon at Rutgers University.
“I thought our guys did a great job,” said Shawnee coach Joe Kessler, who has a 5-2 record in previous trips to the state finals.
“It wasn’t one of our better games, but we persevered,” he said. “We hung in there and we played good defense in the second half.”
Even Kessler admits at the start of the season it would have been difficult to imagine that such a young team could get this far.
But overall, he is not surprised with his team’s success.
“They are young but they are very talented,” the coach said. “If they stick to the game-plan, as long as they followed the script, I knew we would have a very good year.
“I told them, it’s never next year, it’s always now.”
The Renegades got a major lift from Deveney, who scored the team’s first seven points in the fourth quarter, breaking a 34-34 tie at the start of the session.
He threw in two free throws to give the Renegades the lead for good, and then he hit a huge 3-point goal with 6:31 to play in the game to give his team a 5-point lead.
It was a deficit that proved too much for the Devils to handle.
Kessler said the 6-foot-4 Deveney is a major threat to opposing teams because of his ability to take the ball to the basket, as well as shoot from the outside.
“Once he got going, when he hit that three, from that point on we started to roll,” Kessler said. “He can score and he’s a great player and we needed every one of those points.”
Deveney, who scored his 1,000th career point earlier in the game, said the coaches told him to keep doing what he does best.
“The coaches told me to keep my head in it because I wasn’t shooting well in the first half,” he said. “I just kept playing hard, and the shots starting falling.
“I started driving to the basket and I started getting to the line and getting fouled and I started helping my team out.”
Deavon Robinson, who contributed nine points, spoke about how his teammate provides matchup problems for opposing defenses.
“Dylan is very versatile,” he said. “Sometimes he’ll take a `three’ outside, and sometimes he’ll go to the basket and get a layup.
“He’s our best scorer, that’s for sure. When he gets hot it’s really electrifying. Once he gets hot he’s going to keep shooting and he’s going to keep making it.”
Hunterdon was able to stay in the game most of the way with the help of Tucker Richardson with 21 points and Chad Drewwick with 20.
But the Devils were eventually done in by Shawnee’s balance. Aside from Deveney, Sean Heine was the Renegades only other double-figure scorer with 10 points , but Dean Noll joined Robinson with nine points.
In the end, Kessler said, the outcome came down to having the players settle down and play what he called, ``Shawnee basketball.”
“We got a little away from out style of basketball in the first half,” Kessler said. “I made them aware of that and in the second half we came out and played the way we normally play.”
The game was generally close throughout, although Shawnee used a three-point pay by Pat Kernan to open a 21-14 lead in the second quarter.
However, the Devils closed the quarter with a 7-0 run to tie the game at 21-21 at the half.
Shawnee then used a 3-point goal Dean Noll to take a 27-23 lead early in the third quarter only to again see Hunterdon pull back into a tie at 34-34 by the end of that session.
Every indication pointed to a game that was going to go down to the wire, but then Deveney took control and that allowed the Renegades to dominate the fourth quarter.