MIDDLETOWN - Senior guard Joe Mahoney remembers what Ranney's boys basketball games used to be like only two seasons ago, before the Panthers became a must-see show in the Shore Conference.

"My sophomore year, we probably had four or five Ranney fans in the stands,'' he said before smiling. "Three of whom were my family."

Sophomore guard Bryan Antoine had a team-high 19 points as Ranney nearly shocked undefeated state power St. Anthony at the Boardwalk Showcase. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

An exciting and unprecedented era at the small private school in Tinton Falls added another chapter on Tuesday night when Ranney took perennial state power St. Anthony, which entered on a 40-game winning streak, to the absolute brink in a heart-breaking, 51-48 loss on a 3-pointer by sophomore guard Alexander Rice with 4.2 seconds left in regulation at Brookdale Community College.

Two years ago, the thought of Ranney going toe-to-toe with a program that has won a state-record 13 NJSIAA Tournament of Champions titles under Naismith Hall of Famer Bob Hurley Sr. would have been like landing someone on Mars. The Panthers showed Tuesday that they are ready to challenge teams not just locally but on a state-wide level.

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Last season's addition of a class now featuring two of the best sophomores in the nation, Scottie Lewis and Bryan Antoine, as well as fellow starters Alex Klatsky, Chris Autino and transfer Ahmadu Sarnor has changed everything. A school long known mainly for its high academics and sending the sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers, financial executives and Springsteens to the nation's best universities now boasts a basketball team as talented and exciting as any in New Jersey.

"Everyone loves supporting our team,'' Mahoney said. "Every time we have a game, no matter if people have tests the next day, they try to get an extension on their work to get out here and support. I like how Ranney is still keeping academics at the forefront. It's important to build both."

Lewis and Antoine were wooed by a who's who of state powers before they were in high school, but decided to go to a program that was essentially a blank slate rather than join one with a reputation as a perennial power. All the sophomores are teammates on the Team Rio AAU squad run by Klatsky's father and decided to stick together and rewrite history at a program where winning seasons were a rarity.

"It's definitely a phenomenal opportunity,'' Lewis said. "We decided to go to Ranney because of the academic aspect, and that's really helped us with our college recruiting. You just got to have fun with it. We have two more years, and we're going to continue to have fun and continue to make history."

The contrast with St. Anthony was jarring on paper as far as the history of the two programs, but there were 3,000-plus fans at Brookdale Community College eager to see the match-up at Tuesday's Hoop Group Boardwalk Showcase.

"In the context of New Jersey high school basketball, you couldn't have more polar
opposites,'' said Ranney second-year head coach Tahj Holden, who starred at tradition-rich Red Bank Regional in the late 1990s and then won a national championship at Maryland in 2002.

That gaping divide in tradition all went out the window once the ball was tipped, as Lewis and Antoine made sure the Panthers never wilted like many young teams St. Anthony has devoured over the years. Clearly having been part of a high-level AAU team and seeing the nation's best talent regularly has made it so that the sophomore group is unfazed by any big names or high-profile programs.

"Ranney can pretty much play with any team in the state,'' Antoine said.

Antoine earned Ranney's Player of the Game honors with 19 points, seven rebounds and four steals, including one in the final minute that led to a game-tying dunk before the final heroics by Rice, a West Long Branch resident who is the son of Monmouth University head coach King Rice.

Lewis was spectacular as well with his first career triple-double with 12 points, 10 rebounds and 10 blocks. The list of players who have registered a triple-double against St. Anthony in the last 40-plus years can probably be counted on one hand. It's certainly possible that no player has ever had 10 blocks in a game against the Friars.

Hurley, who has coached numerous state legends and coached against the rest, couldn't help but be impressed by the sophomore duo.

“I think this upside, for these guys, is way, way up,” Hurley said. “I think, particularly Antoine has a chance to, and I hate to use the word, be a professional-level guard down the road. And (Lewis) is extraordinarily quick and explosive. They are very impressive, watching both of them.”

Not only is Ranney talented, but Antoine and Lewis are always one play away from a YouTube moment, whether it's a soaring block or a nasty dunk, which is why there were so many casual fans unaffiliated with either team in the stands on Tuesday night.

"Sometimes you get caught watching them, even in games,'' Mahoney said. "You've got to realize that they're your teammates and you have to get back and do your job."

More importantly, they play team basketball and look to get everyone involved. The Panthers were down 12 early to St. Anthony and never panicked, started pointing fingers or going one-on-one on every possession.

"In a game like that, we stuck together," Lewis said. "When we were down we fought back, and when we made mistakes, we picked each other up."

There also could've been plenty of grumbling from upperclassmen angry about losing their spots to younger players, but the Panthers are a close-knit team whose reserves know their role.

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"It was tough initially losing my starting spot to some younger guys, but I realized how talented they were, and I realized how much I love winning,'' Mahoney said. "Getting to play in front of 4,000 people is not something I get to do every day, so I would trade that any day of the week, going to sixth or seventh man, to be able to do that."

"It's a credit to our kids and how hard they're working in practice,'' Holden said. "It's not just the first five, all the sophomores, the guys on the bench are working in practice every day, and when they're getting on the court they're taking an opportunity to help out the team."

Sophomore Scottie Lewis became the rare player to register a triple-double against St. Anthony, which included 10 blocks. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

The fact that Ranney basketball had essentially a non-existent tradition before they arrived also adds excitement to every new spectacle because it's never been done before.

"CBA had to start somewhere,'' Mahoney said. "St. Anthony had to start somewhere. We're starting where they started years and years ago and building our own foundation."

"I think that helps us a little bit because they don't know what they don't know,'' Holden said. "They don't know that they're not supposed to compete with a St. Anthony. They just want to go out and compete and show people how good they are and how good they can be."

They certainly showed it on Tuesday night, putting a scare into the defending Tournament of Champions winner and nearly pulling off the biggest win by far in program history. Only a handful of teams in Shore Conference history, mainly CBA and Neptune, can boast wins over St. Anthony.

"I think even though we lost, I think it proves a lot,'' Lewis said. "For a team of that caliber,
for a coach of that caliber, I think we showed we definitely can compete with anyone."

Tuesday night's challenge was the first leg in the type of week that would've been unimaginable for the Panthers only two years ago. No. 2 Ranney will now face No. 1 Mater Dei Prep in a huge Class B Central showdown on the road on Thursday night, followed by a tough nonconference game against Montclair Immaculate on Saturday.

"I think coming out and playing Mater Dei, playing Montclair Immaculate, two great teams, I
think we knew before that we could play with them, but now it's confirmed,'' Mahoney said.

It's clear that this is a special time at Ranney, and it remains to be seen if this is just a four-year comet streaking across the sky at the small school, or the start of a perennial Shore power. For now, everyone is just enjoying the show.

"You come in this building with 3,000 fans, playing with these guys, and I love it,'' Mahoney said. "How could you not?"

Email: stump@allshoremedia.com

Twitter: @Scott_Stump