TOMS RIVER – It was a season in which many things went right for the St. Augustine boys’ basketball team.
But good fortune did not follow the Hermits through to the end.
The consensus No. 1 team in South Jersey throughout the season, the Hermits saw their state championship hopes dashed at the hands of Don Bosco Prep.
The Hermits had a furious comeback from a 14-point fourth-quarter fall short and went on to drop a 69-66 decision to the Ironman in the State Non-Public A championship game Saturday at the Pine Belt Arena.
“We just didn’t play in the first half for whatever reason,” said St. Augustine coach Paul Rodio. “But in defense of my kids they came back in the second half and we saw them play the way we’ve seen them play a lot.”
Austin Kennedy led the comeback from a game-long deficit by scoring all 22 of his points in the second half, including 15 in the third quarter.
However, he missed a free throw that could have tied the game with 23 seconds left and then had a 3-point goal that could have sent the game into overtime go to the left at the buzzer.
“I knew it didn’t feel good leaving my hand,” Kennedy said. “I knew I had missed it.”
The senior fought back tears as he talked about the abrupt end to what had been a banner season.
“It’s all about winning the game,” Kennedy said. “It’s a bad way to end the season.”
Rodio credited Kennedy with breathing life into the Hermits after they fell behind 33-16 at the half.
All the indications at that time were that the Hermits were about to be blown out, but it didn’t happen.
“(Kennedy) was great,” Rodio said. “He put us on his back. We talked about that at halftime, and he just came out and played like he’s capable of playing.
“A bucket here or there, a play here or there and it would have been the difference. But we just didn’t get it tonight.”
For his part, Kennedy said his teammates refused to give up on the game. It was only a year ago that St. Augustine defeated Don Bosco by 33 points in the state championship game.
“And we didn’t want that to happen to us,” Kennedy said. “I did what I could do to get back into the game, but we came up short.”
Kennedy got offensive support from Justyn Mutts with 15 points and Marlon Hargis with 12 points.
However Mutts converted only 3 of his 11 free throw attempts and the Hermits were only 19-of-27 at the line as a team.
Mutts sadly said that his misses were the difference in the game.
“I missed 10 free throws and two layups,” he said. “I can’t blame anybody else for the game.”
At the same time, Mutts credited Kennedy with lighting the fire the team needed to get back into the game.
“He’s an amazing player,” he said. “All these D-I schools that are overlooking him are missing out on a great player.”
Despite Kennedy’s surge in the third quarter, the Hermits didn’t pick up much ground on the scoreboard. Their 17-point halftime deficit was cut to only 54-40 going into the final quarter.
However, the Hermits kept chipping away.
They got the deficit to single figures at 60-52 on a tap-in by Hargis and then closed to within 61-56 on a 3-point play by Travis Stoll with three minutes to play.
The Ironmen managed to maintain the lead, but a 3-point play by Mutts brought they Hermits to within 63-60 with 1:49 to play.
St. Augustine eventually got the margin down to 65-63 when Mutts hit only one of two free throws.
They then had a chance tie the score at 67 with 12 seconds left but this time Kennedy made only one of two free throws.
Two free throws by Charlie Bagin put the Ironman ahead by three with nine seconds left, leaving the Hermits with a chance tie it with a 3-point goal.
But Kennedy’s shot would not fall as time ran out.
Bagin ended up leading Don Bosco with 19 points, and he was 11 of 13 from the free throw line, some of them coming late in the game.
Earlington Marcellus scored 16 points, and was instrumental in getting the Iron Mikes off to their big lead.
However, he eventually fouled out and that factor played into the Hermits comeback.
Ronald Harper and Manley Dorme contributed to a balanced Don Bosco attack with 10 points each.
St. Augustine ended the season with 25-3 record, while Don Bosco will take a 27-1 record into the Tournament of Champions.