TOMS RIVER - Playing in a state championship game is motivation enough for a team to give its best effort and few feelings in sports are as painful as losing in one.

The experience of the Ranney boys basketball players and their head coach over the last several days coupled with how close the Panthers were to their first ever NJSIAA Group championship made those feelings even more intense Saturday night at the RWJ Barnabas Health Center.

Playing against Roselle Catholic, No. 1 team in N.J., Ranney took a seven-point lead into the final minutes, but ended up on the wrong end of a wild finish and a 63-61 classic in the Non-Public B final Saturday in Toms River.

Ranney took the floor Saturday three days after finding out that Maxwell Holden, the 16-month-old son of head coach Tahj Holden, was diagnosed with a form of cancer called neuroblastoma and did so with yellow shirts that said "Max Strong" over their uniforms. Ranney staff and family were also handing out t-shirts to people as they walked into the gym as a show of support to Holden.

Ranney senior Savior Akuwovo following the final buzzer on Saturday. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Ranney senior Savior Akuwovo following the final buzzer on Saturday. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

"With this being a state championship game and with everything that's been going on this week, the chip that is normally on our shoulder was much, much bigger," Ranney junior Scottie Lewis said. "We were playing for the seniors, we were playing for Max, we were playing for the entire Ranney community and the entire Holden family. That chip grew and grew and we all got locked in. We were all focused."

Once the game started, the Panthers struggled to find their footing in the first half before putting together a spirited second-half effort that was almost enough to knock off the No. 1 team in the state and one of the top 20 teams in the nation.

"It's been a tough few days but getting here is great," Holden said. "It was an unbelievable game and my guys competed for 32 minutes and this is all you want for them to do. As hard as it has been for me, it's hard for them too. They are trying to put together some stuff and are worried about how me and my family are doing, but they come out and really competed and showed why we are one of the best teams in the state."

Junior Ahmadu Sarnor 11 of his team-high 16 points in the second half and helped the Panthers grab a 58-51 lead with under three minutes to play. His two ends of a 1-and-1 put Ranney ahead, 60-57, with 1:48 to go and after senior Savior Akuwovo answered a dunk by Roselle Catholic senior Naz Reid by hitting one of two free throws, Ranney led the No. 1 team in the state, 61-59, with 1:13 to go.

It was not until 29.4 seconds left that Roselle Catholic tied the game on a pair of clutch free throws by junior Kahlil Whitney. That gave Ranney a chance to win it with a basket, but junior Bryan Antoine put up a shot with 12 seconds left that Reid blocked.

After blocking the shot, Reid sprinted up the floor and slammed in a lob from senior Ithiel Horton with seven seconds left to give his team a two-point lead - its first since 51-50 with a little more than five minutes left to play.

"I hate losing," Reid said. "I never want to lose a day in my life and I'm a sore loser at that. I want to continue winning and I'm going to keep doing whatever I have to do to keep winning."

Ranney would have one more chance to extend the game, but Antoine's floater was deflected and a putback attempt by Akuwovo bounced out as the clock expired.

Roselle Catholic celebrated its fourth trip to the Tournament of Champions in seven years while Ranney's players collapsed to the court in disbelief and devastation after coming so close to becoming the first team from the Shore Conference to win Non-Public B in 41 years.

"You never know where you are going - you could be a freshman, a sophomore or a senior - you have to play the game hard," Antoine said. "You never know how many chances you get, so you have to play hard when you get a chance like this."

Reid - and Asbury Park native, McDonald's All-American and a Louisiana State University commit - finished with 22 points and nine rebounds to carry his team to the finish line. Senior and 6-9 center Alanzo Frink finished with 15 points and six rebounds while junior Whitney put up 12 points and nine rebounds after going scoreless in the first half.

"They are a tough young team," Reid said of Ranney. "They have a lot coming in the future. I'm pretty sure they are going to win it all next year. I didn't doubt them, I just knew we had to come out and do what we had to do."

Reid was called for a delay of game earlier in the fourth quarter and on his game-winning dunk, appeared to flip the ball toward the stands again. Instead of issuing a second delay of game - which results in a technical foul - the officials stopped the clock and put 6.3 seconds back on after it ran down to 4.1.

That was one of several calls Lewis and his teammates thought should have gone in Ranney's favor. The Panthers also thought Reid fouled Antoine on Ranney's second-to-last possession.

"When Naz threw the ball out of bounds, that should have been a technical," Lewis said. "Before that, I got a rebound and he knocked it out of my hands out of bounds and the ref missed that one. Bryan got fouled, no call. Savior on the putback - Naz obviously fouled him on that and there was no call. I feel like my team and I did exactly what we were supposed to do. We played our hearts out, but like Tahj said in the meeting after the game, sometimes things don't go your way."

Lewis capped another strong high-school season with a near-triple-double, posting 12 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in a losing effort.

All five of Ranney's starters finished with at least nine points, with four tallying double-figures. Antoine poured in 13 after getting off to a slow start in the first half, junior Alex Klatsky hit three three-pointers - including two in the third quarter - to finish with 11 points and Akuwovo dropped nine points and seven rebounds while picking up a key blocked shot late in the fourth quarter.

Sarnor once again sparked Ranney in a big game, contributing four rebounds and four assists to go with his team-high 16 points on 6-for-14 shooting.

"He has been doing that for us for two years," Holden said of Sarnor. "Every time there is a big game, he seems to step up in some capacity. You look at who he is and what he has done for our team, he ran our team even though he is not a true point guard."

Ranney's balanced scoring struck during an 8-0 run in the fourth quarter that turned a 51-50 deficit into a 58-51 lead. Scottie Lewis stared the run with a drive to the basket, followed by a floater by Antoine. Klatsky then buried both ends of a 1-and-1 before Sarnor capped the burst with a pull-up jumper.

Lewis, who defended Reid for most of the game, picked up his fourth foul with 3:50 to go and from that point on, the 6-10 All-American scored 10 points with four of the five field goals coming on dunks. To that point, Reid had not scored in the second half but once Lewis picked up his fourth foul, he had to use caution.

Saturday's effort was a far cry from the Jan. 31 meeting between the teams at Brookdale Community College, where Roselle Catholic pounded Ranney, 75-50, with Lewis and Klatsky out due to injury.

Facing a career-ending loss, Reid took over the game late to get his team back to the T of C for the first time since winning it as a freshman coming off Roselle Catholic's bench.

Next year, it will be Ranney that is the senior-loaded team, with Lewis, Antoine, Sarnor, Klatsky and center Chris Autino all returning for their final high school seasons. Even if the T of C title will have to wait at least one more year, the Panthers end the greatest season in school history with 28 wins and a Shore Conference Tournament championship.

"With the players we are and the type of people we are, we always think we're the underdogs," Lewis said. "We are always going to play with that chip on our shoulder because that's what has gotten us this far."

As for Holden, his attention will turn to more important matters than a state championship. Max underwent successful surgery to remove a tumor from his liver on Friday and will face 18-to-24 months of treatment.

"The fact that (Holden) showed up today is just incredible," Lewis said. "Having to drive an hour-and-a-half after being in the hospital all week just to coach us - dealing with his wife and his family and (older son) Cole - I have nothing but respect and love for Tahj. He has been a father figure for me for the last three years and he has taught me nothing but good things. He has taught me to have the willpower to fight through things and watching him go through this, he is doing everything he has taught me."

While there is a great deal of unknown ahead, Holden felt the support of the Ranney and Shore communities over the last three days. Not only did many of those in attendance don the "Max Strong" shirts, but a GoFundMe Page started to help the family pay for medical expenses had already raised more than $102,000 in just 48 hours.

"He's a strong guy and now we're going to start the long battle," Holden said of Max. "The support that me and my family have gotten is incredible. From the GoFundMe Page, to all the phone calls and messages we were getting, to people asking how they can help - it's an incredible feeling."


Box Score

Roselle Catholic 63, Ranney 61

Roselle Catholic (27-4)1516161663
Ranney (28-5)1511221361

Roselle Catholic (63): Jason Battle 0 0-0 0, Ithiel Horton 3 3-4 10, Alanzo Frink 6 3-5 15, Naz Reid 11 0-2 22, Kahlil Whitney 5 2-2 12, Josh Pierre-Louis 2 0-0 4, Colby Rogers 0 0-0 0. Totals: 27 8-15 63

Three-pointers: Horton

Ranney (61): Ahmadu Sarnor 6 2-2 16, Bryan Antoine 6 0-4 13, Alex Klatsky 3 2-2 11, Savior Akuwovo 4 1-2 9, Scottie Lewis 6 0-1 12, Chris Autino 0 0-0 0. Totals: 25 5-11 61

Three-pointers: Sarnor 2, Klatsky 3, Antoine


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