PISCATAWAY – The disappointment rolled from the rim to the bench then finally to their hearts, where the hurt stayed and wouldn’t retreat.
With the dreams of a city and his team’s recent failures on his back, Myles Thompson put his head down and drove the right side of the lane.
The clock in his head and the scoreboard told him he had to shoot, forcing him to settle for a pull-up, six foot shot on the baseline as the clock was expiring. His one-hander headed straight on, a little flat perhaps, but definitely spinning toward the middle of the basket. The ball hit too much iron, though, and skidded over the bucket, as did another shot at the elusive 12th state title for the Camden High School boys’ basketball team.
“I had a good chance,” the classy Thompson said afterwards. “I thought it was going in.”
Instead of igniting a celebration on the Camden bench, West Side of Newark sighed with relief, defending its Group 2 state title, 51-49, Sunday evening at Rutgers University.
“It is heartbreaking to come up here and come up short,” Thompson, a 6-foot-4 junior forward, said.
The proud Panthers have won 11 state titles, but the last one was in 2000 when the greatest of them all, Dajuan Wagner, was a junior.
Since then, Camden has lost eight consecutive state finals, starting in 2001 when Wagner was a senior.
Wagner slumped from the bench with the Panthers after the game-tying shot never was and he was outside the Camden locker room consoling players and coaches, who were shaking their heads after shooting just 10-for-25 from the foul line.
“That has been our weakness,” Camden coach John Valore said solemnly. “That has been our Achilles. We wouldn’t be here talking like this if we made our foul shots.”
Last year, Camden also lost to West Side of Newark, 85-83, in the Group 2 state finals when its 18-point lead vanished. Although both losses to the Roughriders were different as the Panthers clawed from behind the entire game this time, they stung the same.
“It feels empty, but that being said, we made it here,” Valore said about returning to the RAC. “How many teams can say that?
“We took care of business in South Jersey, but sometimes things don’t go your way.”
Valore has led the Panthers to the state finals in each of his four seasons with the program.
“It did slip away at the end like in the past,” Valore said.
Overall, this was the fifth-straight year Camden reached the state finals and lost.
“We had opportunities at the end, there is no question about it,” Valore said.
Camden trailed 39-34 with five minutes left in the fourth quarter when sophomore guard Ethan Tarte scored two-straight buckets to bring The High within a point.
The Panthers took the lead on a pair of free throws by senior Keysean Simmonds before West Side answered with a corner 3-pointer by freshman guard Kirk Parsons for a 42-40 lead.
Thompson tied the game at the 2:35 mark but the Roughriders took the lead again with one free throw.
Simmons answered with a layup and Camden led 44-43 with 1:45 to play.
West Side responded with a 3-point play by senior guard Yasim Hooker on a drive to the basket and the ensuing free throw for a 46-44 lead with 1:22.
Camden made just one of two free throws while West Side made both in each team’s next possession to expand its lead to 48-45.
A layup by senior forward Deaquan Williams with 45 seconds left brought Camden within 48-47.
Then Camden forced a turnover at halfcourt and Tarte was fouled – and injured – in the scramble for the loose ball. Tarte was unable to shoot the free throws, so a Camden reserve, who hadn’t played in the game, came off the bench to shoot for Tarte. The front end of the one-and-one was missed.
“I banged it,” Tarte said about his knee. “It feels alright.”
Over its next two possessions, West Side made three of four free throws for a 51-47 lead with 16.1 seconds left while Camden came up empty on its possession, missing a 3-pointer.
Thompson scored a quick layup to cut the lead in half.
Then, Camden forced a turnover off the inbounds pass and had the ball out of bounds at half court with 4.3 seconds left.
The ball was inbounded to Thompson at the top of the key. He took it to the hoop. His shot looked like it would send the game into overtime.
“It hurts,” said Thompson, who will be one of the top returning players in South Jersey next season. “I’ve been here three times and I haven’t won. It hurts.”
What shouldn’t hurt is Camden’s pride. The Panthers had to grind just to get back to the state final.
After starting point guard Corey Greer suffered a season-ending knee injury in late December, Valore said, “We still have high hopes.”
Valore and the Panthers never used the loss of Greer, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the fourth game against Paul VI, as a crutch for not being able to return to the state final.
Instead, Camden found a way to replace the talented Greer’s playmaking ability and 12 points a game to return to the RAC and to try and wipe away their recent heartbreaks.
Even before the injury to Greer, Camden had already lost a pair of senior 1,000-point scorers in Jamal Holloway and Brad Hawkins from last year.
“We got here, we thought we were going to win,” Tarte said.
The Camden Gym, named after legendary coach Clarence Turner, is set to be demolished. The Panthers punctuated their final game on the court named after Dajuan Wagner with a dramatic last second victory over Haddonfield in the South Jersey finals. Fittingly, the game ended in overtime.
There was no overtime in the state final. But for the resilient Camden kids and their coach, there will be a next time in the state final.
Hopefully, next year. Hopefully, Thompson will have the drive down the lane and the baseline six-footer for the win next year.
“It feels like a curse or something,” Tarte said. “We got to break through.”