TOMS RIVER - Plenty of basketball fans in New Jersey have paid to watch the Ranney highlight show and some 3,000 more did so to watch the heralded Panthers senior class in their penultimate high school game Friday night in Toms River.

While the dunks and robust offensive numbers have sold a lot of tickets over the years, Ranney's defense is what is winning championships. After another lock-down defensive effort against a hot-shooting opponent, Ranney is away from one more trophy - one that has never made the trip to the Jersey Shore.

Seniors Bryan Antoine and Scottie Lewis led a balanced scoring effort but it was Ranney's defense that stole the show in the Panthers' 62-40 win over Group III champion and third-seeded Moorestown Friday at RWJ Barnabas Health Arena.

From left, Phillip Wheeler, Bryan Antoine and Scottie Lewis celebrate during Ranney's win over Moorestown Friday in the T of C. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
From left, Phillip Wheeler, Bryan Antoine and Scottie Lewis celebrate during Ranney's win over Moorestown Friday in the T of C. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Ranney moves on to take on second-seeded Bergen Catholic in the Tournament of Champions final Sunday at Rutgers Athletic Center - a rematch of a Hoop Group Boardwalk Showcase showdown won by Ranney, 56-55. Tipoff is scheduled for 4 p.m.

Antoine scored nine of his game-high 16 points in the first half to help Ranney work out some rust on the offensive end.

That rust did not last as long on the other end of the floor, but Moorestown did wake up the capacity crowd with a shooting exhibition in the first four-plus minutes of the game. The Quakers hit four of their first seven three-point attempts to jump out to a 12-6 lead on Ranney.

At that point, the Panthers tightened the clamps on the Group III champs. From just before the 3:30 mark of the first quarter until the 4:55 mark of the third - a stretch of game clock spanning nearly 15 minutes - Ranney held Moorestown without a field goal. Ranney outscored Moorestown, 23-2 during that dry spell.

"It's one of (the best)," Antoine said, comparing Friday's defensive effort to the rest of Ranney's defensive performances this season. "Against Freehold Township (in the Shore Conference Tournament), our first half was probably the best half of defense we played this year."

Senior Nick Cartwright-Atkins finally ended the drought with a hard-fought putback, but that only served to wake up Ranney's offense. After Cartwright-Atkins cut the Ranney lead to 29-16, the Panthers racked up 33 points over the final 12 minutes to close out the win.

The basket by Cartwright-Atkins near the midway point of the third was Moorestown's first two-point basket of the game and one of just four the Quakers converted from inside the three-point arc in the entire game. They finished 10-for-31 from three-point range.

"Certainly, our defense helped out offense today - once we decided we were going to play hard defensively," Ranney coach Tahj Holden said. "In the first half, our guys were trying to gauge how good they were as shooters, even though we told them (Jagger Zrada) has 82 threes and you can't be a bad shooter.

"In the first quarter we did a good job - not great - and they hit some shots. Any team that's in the Tournament of Champions is capable of beating any team that's here and they were highly capable if they would have continued that. In the second quarter, we locked in defensively."

Lewis chipped in 14 points, six rebounds and two blocks and sent the crowd home with a poster-worthy dunk to conclude his scoring and put Ranney up, 58-35.

Junior Phillip Wheeler added 10 points, five rebounds and two blocks while senior Ahmadu Sarnor filled up the stat sheet with nine points, five rebounds and five assists.

Ranney is only the second Shore Conference team to reach championship game in the 31-year history of the Tournament of Champions and the first since Neptune broke the seal in 2002. That Scarlet Fliers team - led by former Louisville star Taquan Dean - fell victim to St. Anthony in a one-sided, championship-game loss.

"All of us are going to play at a higher level (of emotion) that anyone has seen us play," Lewis said. "This is the highest platform there is to play in the state. There are going to be tears (on Sunday): tears of joy end with a win or tears if we end in a loss. There are 311 teams that end their season with a loss and we don't want to be one of them."

On Sunday at the RAC, Ranney will try to avoid the same fate as the 2002 Neptune squad by winning the Shore Conference's first ever T of C title in boys basketball. In order to do that, the Panthers will have to beat Bergen Catholic - a 79-75 winner over Newark East Side on Friday - for a second time this season.

In the first meeting between the teams on Jan. 12, Ranney played without both Wheeler and Sarnor and still pulled out the one-point win.

"Adding Ahmadu, adding Phil gives us two more bodies of depth and also some size and toughness we were lacking in that first game," Holden said. "Bergen Catholic is a good team, they are not going to be intimidated by anything we do and rightfully so. They are probably thinking they let an opportunity slip away from them earlier in the season"

Whether it is Ranney or Bergen Catholic that hoists the trophy on Sunday evening in Piscataway, it will be the final game for Ranney's senior core of Antoine, Lewis, Sarnor, Alex Klatsky and Chris Autino.

"Everything you do from here on out is the last time," Holden said, relaying his post-game message to his team. "This is the last time we walk out of this locker room and this arena as a team. The last time we get on the bus with another game to play. Tomorrow's our last practice and Sunday's our last game. We have to do everything possible to get ready to win a game on Sunday because there is nothing after Sunday for this team this year."

Antoine, Lewis, Klatsky and Autino debuted as freshmen on opening night of 2015 and Sarnor joined the quartet one year later. Over the last four years, Ranney has won 102 games, three Shore Conference Class B Central titles, two Shore Conference Tournament championships, two South Jersey Non-Public B championships and one overall Non-Public B championship.

There is only one more title to win and should the Panthers capture it on Sunday night, they will rewrite the Shore Conference record book and cement their place among the best teams of the Tournament of Champions Era.

"I probably won't even know it's the last game until the next day when there is no text from coaching telling us what time practice is and we don't get together as a team," Antoine said. "I just want to attack the game normally and it will probably hit me after the game."

"I have watched the rest of our guys grow as players and people for the last four years and they have watched me do the same," Lewis said. "It's crazy to be able to leave a legacy behind and no matter what happens on Sunday, we're going to be proud of what we accomplished."



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