PISCATAWAY - Four years ago, Bryan Antoine and Scottie Lewis made the decision to attend the Ranney School and stuck by that decision at every step of the way specifically for the opportunity that was in front of them Sunday evening at Rutgers Athletic Center.

The longtime teammates and current McDonald's All-Americans are sure to have many more memorable moments and have a chance to accomplish much bigger things on a much bigger scale in basketball careers that will take them where few players get to go.

Whatever happens, they won't forget what they did on Sunday night at the RAC.

Lewis, Antoine and their Ranney teammates overcame some uncertain moments early and late in Sunday's Tournament of Champions final against Bergen Catholic to do what seemed like a certainty four years ago: become the first Shore Conference boys basketball program to win the T of C, which the Panthers pulled off by edging the Crusaders, 67-63.

PHOTO GALLERY: Ranney vs. Bergen Catholic by Ray Richardson

Lewis capped his career with 20 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals while Antoine ended his record-setting career with 17 points, six rebounds and four assists. The two All-Americans helped carry their team through a lackluster first half, made crucial plays during a tide-turning third quarter and helped close out the state championship and No. 1 ranking in the state before riding off into the proverbial sunset.

"It shows that we are winners," Antoine said. "People kind of see us as Bryan and Scottie but that's not how we see it. We see it as Mike Dettro, Alex Klatsky - from the starters to the last guys on the bench, everybody played a role this year and in these four years."

Ranney announced itself as the favorite to win the 2019 Tournament of Champions with its valiant performance in a losing cause against eventual T of C champion Roselle Catholic last year when the Panthers' core players were juniors.

"We set the bar high," Lewis said. "Winning the TOC and creating a culture and a program from scratch. That was one of the reasons we chose Ranney: we wanted to build something. We wanted that legacy - the legacy as the best team in New Jersey and the best team to come out of Central Jersey and the Shore."

They carried that No. 1 ranking in the state through most of 2018-19 and were the No. 1 seed in this T of C, but did not look the part in the first half. Bergen Catholic (27-4) pounded Ranney (31-3) throughout the first 16 minutes and after 6-10 senior and Xavier commit Zach Freemantle slammed in a lob from classmate and St. Peter's commit Doug Edert, the Crusaders rode into the half with a 30-21 advantage.

Antoine and Lewis combined for 18 of Ranney's 21 points in the first half, with the Panthers shooting 0-for-7 from beyond the three-point line and 7-for-27 overall.

"Previously over the course of the year, we have showed a lot of heart," Lewis said. "A lot of times, teams give us their best shot in the first half. We come out prepared and we just treat the second half like it's zero-zero."

In the third quarter, the Panthers came to life behind their defense, as well as the emergence of junior Phillip Wheeler and Ahmadu Sarnor on the offensive end. Wheeler scored six of his 14 points in the third quarter, during which Ranney outscored Bergen Catholic, 26-16, to seize a 47-46 lead heading into the final eight minutes.

Sarnor, meanwhile, bounced back from a scoreless first half with five points in the third and 13 during the second half to give the Panthers some needed offensive punch.

"I just tried to do my job: play defense, crash the boards, get rebounds and my offense will come with that," Sarnor said. "That was my main objective."

Lewis and Antoine were very much a part of the momentum shift as well. Lewis scored nine of his 13 second-half points in the third and Antoine tied the game, 44-44, with a two-handed dunk in transition before giving the Panthers the lead, 45-44, for the first time since 14-13 in the second quarter with a free throw.

Over the first three quarters, Ranney hit only one shot attempt from outside the paint - a Sarnor midrange jumper in the third. The Panthers finally broke the seal early in the fourth with three-pointers by senior Alex Klatsky and Sarnor that stretched Ranney's lead to seven.

"Our gameplan is always to attack immediately," Lewis said. "We have tremendous outside shooters but we know the strength of our game is to fast break and get to the cup."

Ranney appeared poised to pull away after Lewis scored on drive to the rim to stretch the lead to 57-48 and the Panthers came away with a stop on the other end to retain possession with 4:22 left in the game.

Before Ranney could inbound the ball later in the possession, Wheeler was called for a technical foul for shoving Freemantle out near midcourt after the two big-men exchanged words. The technical foul gave Bergen Catholic two free throws and possession back, which the Crusaders turned into four points. Just like that, Ranney's lead was down to 57-52.

"His motor is unbelievable, his emotion is unbelievable," Antoine said of Wheeler. "That just shows you how hard he plays. He is the same player in practice. If somebody fouls him hard hard, he'll come at you and you have to tell him, 'It's just practice.'"

The Panthers appeared to stem the tide of momentum by building its lead back to 62-54 after Wheeler returned to the game and threw-down a two-handed dunk off a feed from Antoine. On the other end, however, the 6-8 junior bumped Bergen Catholic junior Matt Zona as he was shooting a three from the top of the key and the shot dropped.

Zona hit the ensuing free throw and Wheeler went to the bench visibly upset as his coaches tried to calm him down while the team on the floor tried to hold it together with Bergen Catholic now trailing only 62-58 with 2:46 left.

"It's a situation where there is a championship on the line and emotions are high," Ranney coach Tahj Holden said. "Phil is an emotional player and he took it a little too far. And that happens sometimes.

"We got him back in the game and he made a couple plays for us, got a dunk. Things happen over the course of the game and you just have to tell yourself it's over with and keep playing."

Freemantle later scored on a put-back to cut the deficit to 62-61 with 2:28 to go and after Lewis hit one of two free throws, freshman Will Richardson pulled the Crusaders even on a drive to the basket with 44 seconds left.

With the game on the line, Sarnor worked into the paint and drew a foul on Richardson on the floor with 15.9 seconds to go. The senior point guard missed the first free throw before hitting the second to put the Panthers ahead, 64-63.

With a chance to win the title, Bergen Catholic pushed the ball up the floor and Richardson called his number. The freshman guard put of a floater that missed the mark and Wheeler collected the rebound with 4.9 seconds left.

Wheeler hit the first free throw and missed the second, but Sarnor plucked the rebound and was fouled with 0.2 left on the clock to set off the celebration. He knocked down the two free throws and Ranney's starters walked off the floor the No. 1 team in N.J. to finish out the season.

Wheeler scored 11 of his points after halftime and also added six rebounds and three steals. Sarnor pulled in six rebounds as well.

Only one other Shore Conference team had ever reached the Tournament of Champions final prior to Ranney. Neptune lost to St. Anthony in the 2002 championship game.

Ranney is the first Shore Conference team to finish No. 1 in the state in the Tournament of Champions Era, which began in 1989. It was a title 30-plus-years in the making for the Shore and four-plus years for the core of Antoine, Lewis, Klatsky, Chris Autino and Sarnor.

"I came to Ranney to go to school and play basketball with my brothers - my friends that I have had since sixth and seventh grade," Antoine said. "Our team didn't really change much each year and even when we had some new guys come in, it didn't change the core group. As we got older we, we start to know what everybody else is about to do on the court. It makes a big difference."

 

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