COLLINGSWOOD – There wasn’t a lot of deep thinking behind Jaden Wallace’s motivation to play well on Monday for the Collingswood High School basketball team.
The junior guard simply didn’t want to see the Panthers season end without the team winning at least one game in the post-season.
“We worked hard this season,” Wallace said. “I didn’t want to lose it that easy.”
Wallace scored a game-high 23 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter.
His effort gave the the No. 8 seeded Panthers a 47-45 win over Colonial Conference rival No. 9 Sterling in the first round of the South Jersey Group 2 tournament.
With Wallace’s help, Collingswood overcame a one point deficit at the start of the fourth quarter to earn a sectional quarterfinal matchup against No. 1 Camden on Wednesday.
He took on a leadership role during the closing run, urging his teammates to play hard and get the job done.
“I had to talk to the guys during a timeout and tell them step it up, let’s go,” Wallace said. “Now we have a monster on Wednesday against Camden.”
Collingswood coach Patrick Dorney has been urging Wallace to step up and take more of a leadership role with the team. He says Wallace has made great strides in the past month.
“Jaden has elevated his game from right around mid-January,” Dorney said. “Around then we had a conversation with him about being `the guy.’"
The problem for Wallace, though, is he sometimes finds it difficult to exert his will on his teammates.
“I’m trying to step up,” Wallace said. “But we have six seniors on the team, so it’s kind of hard, but I’m still trying.”
Dorney understands the obstacles Wallace faces in trying to take over a role as a team leader.
Even though the coach says Wallace "has the skill set". But there is more to it than that. Leadership skills also require a certain personality type, and Wallace is still developing that part of his makeup.
“He’s personality is so passive that he doesn’t want to be the guy,” Dorney said. “But we said it’s time for you to step up.
"From the moment he had the ball tonight you thought something good was going to happen.”
That was evident early as Wallace got the Panthers going in the right direction when he scored 10 of his points in the first quarter.
Despite his efforts, however, Collingswood still led only 17-15 at the half.
The closeness of the score came as no surprise to Dorney. The two Liberty Division rivals split two regular-season times this season and all the games have been close.
“This is what I expected,” he said. “I said to the kids, with two minutes left, this is going to be a one-possession game. Somebody is going to have to make a play.”
As the third quarter began it appeared it was Sterling that was going to take control of the game.
With Evan Gramley hitting two 3-point goals, the Silver Knights went on a 10-0 run. The surge pushed to a 25-22 lead midway through the third quarter.
At that point coach Harold Little thought his squad had something going.
“I thought we were getting in a groove,” he said. “And that groove left quickly.”
Sean Butts helped Collingswood regain some equilibrium with two baskets late in the third quarter, which ended with the Silver Knights holding a 29-28 lead.
In the fourth quarter the game essentially settled into a one-on-one battle with Sterling’s Cole Eshelman trying his best to keep his team in the game against Wallace.
For a while he matched Wallace point for point, and he ended up scoring 10 of his team-high 15 points in the fourth quarter.
However, Collingswood took the lead for good at the start of the fourth quarter when Wallace opened it by scoring a 3-point goal.
He then personally went on to outscore Sterling 7-2 in the first few minutes as the Panthers assumed a 36-31 led with just under four minutes to play.
Sterling continued to play tough and cut the deficit to 41-40 on a runner by Eschelman with 44 seconds to play. But then the Silver Knights were forced to foul, and the Panthers responded.
“We knew it was going to be a one possession game,” Wallace said. “So we had to be ready.”
Wallace hit four free throws, Butts added two and Adam Hunt added one in the closing seconds to keep Collingswood on top.