NJSIAA Non-Public B Championship

Saturday, March 9, 2019

At RWJ Barnabas Health Arena, Toms River, 7 p.m.

Ranney (28-3) vs. Roselle Catholic (28-3)

For an entire year, the returning Ranney boys basketball players have been playing for the opportunity that is finally in front of them on Saturday night in Toms River. Every offseason workout, every practice, every divisional blowout, every high school showcase and every state postseason game the Panthers have played have been with March 9 in the back of their collective mind.

On Saturday night, it is finally here: a chance at redemption, a chance at a first ever state championship and a chance for Ranney to take a giant leap toward leaving a lasting legacy that will extend far beyond the Shore.

Nearly one year to the day after losing a heart-breaking, 63-61, Non-Public B championship game to Roselle Catholic, Ranney will get its second crack at the defending champion Lions at RWJ Barnabas Health Arena with a spot in the Tournament of Champions on the line.

Ranney already exacted a measure of revenge with a 61-49 over Roselle Catholic on Jan. 30 but that wound will not heal completely without one more win over the Lions.

"I remember being in (Toms River), watching my teammates crying," Lewis recalled from the loss to Roselle Catholic last year. "Ahmadu dropped to his knees right away. There were multiple cameras in our face, taking pictures of our tears. There is still a lot of anger and hatred built up from that moment. A lot of people wanted us to win but to all the people that wanted us to lose, we're coming for those people as well."

Ranney senior Bryan Antoine. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Lewis and classmate and fellow McDonald’s All-American Bryan Antoine came to Ranney four years ago with an eye on turning Ranney into a Shore Conference power and bringing an NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title back to the Shore. The duo has already checked off the first item and was only a few bounces of the ball away from winning the T of C as juniors against an imposing Roselle Catholic squad that graduated four of its starters after the season.

This time around, Ranney is the team burdened by the expectations – the Panthers are the No. 1 team in the state, handled Roselle Catholic during the regular season, they have two McDonald’s All-Americans to Roselle Catholic’s one, they will be playing closer to home and it’s hard to see the program ever having a better chance to win a Tournament of Champions title. Throw in the fact that no boys Shore Conference team has ever won a T of C title and the pressure for Ranney to finish the job is becoming palpable.

Fortunately for coach Tahj Holden, his team has taken the pressure and expectations in stride over these four years. That was on full display on Wednesday night, when the Panthers struggled to make shots and found themselves trailing Wildwood Catholic, 48-44, with 2:30 to go in the fourth quarter. Bryan Antoine hit a floater, Scottie Lewis made two clutch free throws and blocked a potential tying shot and Ranney went on to escape in overtime against the No. 5 team in the state.

Ranney will have to play a better game than it played on Wednesday to top Roselle Catholic for a second time, which raises one of the main concerns for Ranney on Saturday: are the Panthers going to be as sharp as Roselle Catholic heading into Saturday’s nightcap? Roselle Catholic had to beat Gill St. Bernard – a team that beat Ranney in the regular season and the No. 3 team in the state – to reach Saturday’s championship game and are undoubtedly battle-tested heading into the showdown.

“Roselle Catholic is going to have a chip on their shoulder because we beat them,” Holden said. “We have to take it to them because now they know it’s going to take a better effort to beat us and we can’t let our guard down just because we beat them once.”

The Panthers’ path to the final was not as difficult as that of Roselle Catholic, but Ranney has answered challenge after challenge throughout the season. They are 3-1 this season against nationally-ranked opponents, 3-1 against the top-five teams in N.J. (wins over Roselle Catholic, Bergen Catholic and Wildwood Catholic and a loss to Gill St. Bernard) and have won 100 games over the last four seasons since Lewis, Antoine and Holden have joined the program.

While Ranney attempts to heal last year’s emotional wounds, Roselle Catholic’s biggest concern on Saturday is a physical one. Senior point guard and UNLV commit Josh Pierre-Louis injured his right wrist in Wednesday’s win over Gill St. Bernard and did not return, instead heading to the hospital for x-rays. Roselle Catholic coach Dave Boff has not publicly commented on Pierre-Louis’s status for Saturday and his availability and effectiveness will be a major x-factor for the Lions.

If Roselle Catholic is without its top ball-handler and facilitator and its second-leading scorer, beating Ranney will be an very tall order. The Lions successfully closed out Gill St. Bernard with Pierre-Louis out, which is a good sign, but 32 minutes either without Pierre-Louis or with an ailing Pierre-Louis would make beating Ranney nearly impossible.

Senior Kahlil Whitney would likely have to shoulder more of the load, which he is capable of doing as a McDonald’s All-American and future Kentucky Wildcat. The 6-7 swingman scored 15 points in the regular-season meeting on 6-for-13 shooting while going head-to-head with Scottie Lewis, who put up eight points and 10 rebounds.

McDonald's All-American's Scottie Lewis (23), Kahlil Whitney (2) and Bryan Antoine (1). (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Ranney limited Pierre-Louis to 13 points and contained off-guard Colby Rogers (six points) as part of the win at Brookdale College on Jan. 30. Lions 6-10 big man Cliff Omoruyi had a big first half in the game but went quiet in the final 16 minutes in finishing with 15 points and 10 rebounds.

The late-January win was also the last real vintage performance by Antoine, who is averaging 17.1 points in 11 games since scoring 25 in the win over Roselle Catholic. Two of those 11 games were 30-point outings against Henry Hudson and Mater Dei Prep.

Antoine has also been battling a pair of nagging injuries. He injured his left foot in an 89-51 loss to Montverde Academy and has aggravated a right shoulder injury that he has been playing through all year on multiple occasions. In Ranney’s overtime win over Wildwood Catholic on Wednesday, Antoine scored 15 points on 6-for-17 shooting, with 13 points coming after halftime.

With Antoine playing through those two injures, Ranney has had enough help around the Shore’s all-time leading scorer to still win games. Lewis has been particularly great in Ranney’s big games, both on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. The 6-5 Florida commit was the MVP of Ranney’s SCT championship win over Manasquan and has been machine-like in the state tournament: 17 points in each of Ranney’s wins over Trenton Catholic, Rutgers Prep and Wildwood Catholic, including 13 rebounds, four blocks and two clutch free throws with 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s nail-biter.

Junior Phillip Wheeler and senior Ahmadu Sarnor were major difference-makers in the Jan. 30 win over Roselle Catholic. Both players had to sit for an extended period to open the season and that win over the Lions was the first time both had clicked together in the same game, with Wheeler going for 10 points and 12 rebounds and Sarnor posting 12 points and four assists.

Ranney senior Ahmadu Sarnor guarded by Roselle Catholic senior Colby Rogers. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Ranney can usually count on senior Alex Klatsky to knock down a couple of three-pointers and the Panthers will need their sharpshooter to find the range on Saturday, which he did for a stretch of last year’s Non-Public B final.

Senior Chris Autino and Elijah Perkins will also get minutes for Ranney, with Autino tasked with battling Omoruyi and Perkins hoping to build on his clutch performance in overtime on Wednesday.

Ranney is still three wins away from becoming the Shore’s first ever Tournament of Champions winner but Saturday would mark the most significant step in reaching that goal. Roselle Catholic is the No. 2 team in the state and the defending champion and if Ranney can clear that hurdle, the finish line will be in sight.

If they can’t, Ranney will be remembered as the team that had Scottie Lewis and Bryan Antoine but couldn’t win the Tournament of Champions. Lewis and Antoine could very well go on to do big things at Florida and Villanova, respectively, and eventually in the NBA. Their basketball legacies will extend far beyond high school basketball but the larger those legacies become, the more baffling it would be that they came up short of finishing No. 1 in N.J. as seniors.

Ranney junior Phillip Wheeler guarded by Roselle Catholic junior Cliff Omoruyi. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Prediction

My high school baseball coach, the late John Miranda, had a favorite saying that he used to recite to us during practice, almost as though he was taunting us with it: “Pressure does different things to different people.”

I have heard the question, in some form, asked several times: “Can Ranney handle the pressure of a close game with the season on the line?” At this point, they have already answered that question and the answer is “Absolutely.” Sure, Ranney has lost some close games over the last three years but they have also shown on plenty of occasions that they can close out games, come back late and execute with the game on the line.

Pressure has been part of the stew that is this four-year experiment and it has made this group a more potent team. Lewis proved as much when he hit two free throws with the season on the line and Ranney 22 seconds from a crushing loss to Wildwood Catholic. Roselle Catholic might get to Ranney but the pressure won’t.

If Ranney plays its A-game, it will win the Non-Public B title on Saturday. The Panthers were better in the half court than Roselle Catholic was on Jan. 30 and once they neutralized Omoruyi on the offensive glass, the Lions had trouble scoring. At that point it comes down to making shots and with Lewis, Antoine, Sarnor, Wheeler and Klatsky, the Panthers have the shot-makers to best even the defending champs.

Pierre-Louis’s injury makes this game hard to call definitively, but regardless of whether or not he plays, Ranney will attack this game as though the Panthers have been waiting 364 days to play it. Because they have.

The Pick: Ranney 60, Roselle Catholic 54