Boys Basketball – TOC Final Preview: Ranney Eyes Storybook Ending to Four-Year Journey
NJSIAA Tournament of Champions Final
Sunday, March 17, 2019, 4 p.m.
At Rutgers Athletic Center, Piscataway
No. 1 Ranney (30-3) vs. No. 2 Bergen Catholic (27-3)
Four years ago, a trip to the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions was just a dream, albeit a realistic one, for Bryan Antoine, Scottie Lewis, Alex Klatsky and Chris Autino. The four freshmen were varsity starters from Day One on the Ranney School boys basketball team – partly because they were especially gifted despite their youth and partly because Ranney had never been much for basketball.
Prior to the arrival of the quartet from the Class of 2019 and head coach Tahj Holden ahead of the 2015-16 season, Ranney had never won a game in the NJSIAA Tournament, never qualified for the Shore Conference Tournament and had the sort of basketball program in which a .500 season against a light schedule is a cause for celebration.
No matter how talented Antoine and Lewis were and how much talent the program would add and develop under Holden over the subsequent three years, a Tournament of Champions title might as well have been an NBA championship – a fun thing to dream about, something to work toward, but pipe dream.
Four years later, the framing has changed dramatically. Antoine and Lewis are McDonald’s All-Americans and their Panthers squad is one win away from capturing that Tournament of Champions title while at the same time, one loss away from what would be a bitter disappointment.
"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."
From the perspective of what was essentially a start-up program four years ago, just reaching Sunday’s Tournament of Champions final is an incredible accomplishment. Ranney had to go survive a serious test from the No. 5 team in the state, Wildwood Catholic, to win its second consecutive South Jersey Non-Public B championship and then beat defending Tournament of Champions winner Roselle Catholic win Non-Public B title and advance to the T of C.
Not only has Ranney made it exponentially farther than any team in its school history – the Panthers have made it as far as any team in the history of the Shore Conference. That would have been dumbfounding proposition just five years ago.
"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," Lewis said.
In the long-range view, Lewis is correct: this season and four-year journey has already been a success. From the perspective of a team with two of the country’s top high school guards and at least three other Division-l-level basketball players in the starting lineup, there is will be no moral victories. Sunday’s showdown with Bergen Catholic is a make-or-break game.
There is someone who disagrees with Lewis’s current position that he and his teammates have already sufficiently cemented their legacy as a success story from the Shore: Scottie Lewis from November.
"It's T.O.C. or bust at this point," Lewis said back in November when asked about the team's expectations.
While Lewis seems to be playing both sides, he is right on both counts. Ranney’s four-year run puts them in the conversation among the greatest teams in Shore Conference history, regardless of what happens on Sunday at he RAC. Considering that the program had never gotten off the ground until this group arrived, there is an unprecedented nature to what Ranney has done.
He is also correct in calling this season “championship-or-bust.” Ranney entered the season as the favorite to win the T of C, has been the No. 1 team in N.J. for most of the season and already beat Bergen Catholic during the regular season while playing without two of its current starters, senior Ahmadu Sarnor and junior Phillip Wheeler. While the Crusaders have played like a team formidable enough to beat Ranney over the last three weeks, the burden of expectations rests on the collective shoulders of the No. 1 seed.
If Ranney comes up short of the ultimate prize in N.J. high school basketball, they may still go down as one of the all-time teams at the Shore but will have missed out on the only way to separate from that pack. The 2002 Neptune squad led by Taquan Dean is the only other team from the Shore Conference to make it as far as Ranney has and that Scarlet Fliers team came up short against St. Anthony in the T of C title game.
While there have been a number of other teams to accomplish great things before the T of C started in 1989 – the 1977 Long Branch squad, the 1981 Neptune team that beat a Camden juggernaut in the NJSIAA Tournament, the undefeated Red Bank team from 1983 and any number of great teams from Christian Brothers Academy – a Tournament of Champions title would be the ultimate trump card for this Ranney team. In an era of high school basketball that requires pulling multiple Division I caliber players from multiple towns in order to have any reasonable chance to compete for a Tournament of Champions title, Ranney is on the cusp of being the super-team among super-teams in 2019. For all their accomplishments, none of the other great Shore teams from the past – whether they would care to or not – can make that case.
Finally, there is Ranney’s position among some of the all-time teams during the Tournament of Champions Era. Certainly, St. Anthony’s undefeated teams stand above the rest, while the St. Patrick team with Kyrie Irving and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was as talented a team the state has ever seen, even if the Celtics were ineligible for the NJSIAA Tournament in that 2009-10 season.
Five years ago, St. Joseph of Metuchen made a run to the Tournament of Champions final, led by No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns and fellow first-round pick Wade Baldwin. The Falcons had to scratch and claw but ultimately beat Linden and Newark East Side to win the T of C for the first and only time in program history. While St. Joseph has a basketball history far richer than that of Ranney, the Falcons never had and may never again have a team on that level.
While St. Joseph is the success story, last year’s Hudson Catholic team is the other outcome. Despite being led by two McDonald’s All-Americans in Jahvon Quinerly (Villanova) and Louis King (Oregon), as well as another senior standout in Luther Muhammed (Ohio State), Hudson Catholic failed to reach the Tournament of Champions with that heralded class.
It is possible Ranney is just scratching the surface of what it will be as a power player in New Jersey basketball. More likely, however, this is the chance for Antoine, Lewis, Klatsky, Autino, Sarnor, Wheeler and even freshman Elijah Perkins to grab the brass ring and put their names and the name of their school in a special page of the history book.
With a win, Ranney becomes the latest name on the list of champions – maybe not at the very top but among the best teams to pass through New Jersey over the last half-century. If Antoine and Lewis go on to have the kind of professional careers that many expect them to have, that would only add to the lore of this Ranney group.
Without a win on Sunday, they will be remembered as the team that had Bryan Antoine and Scottie Lewis and somehow didn’t win it all. It won’t take away from how far the program has come, their five tournament championships or their standing as one of the best teams in Shore Conference history, but there will always be that lasting blemish.
If Ranney can win on Sunday, there will be no blemish: just the final brush strokes of a masterpiece four years in the making.
Crusading for Revenge
With one second left in one of New Jersey’s best regular-season games of 2018-19, Bergen Catholic senior Doug Edert had the ball and a wide-open shot that he has made countless times in practice.
The St. Peter’s University signee missed the shot and his team left Brookdale Community College on Jan. 12 with a hard-to-swallow 56-55 loss to Ranney.
"It was an elbow shot, a midrange shot that I shoot a million times every day," Edert said. "It's an open shot. I choked for my team and I felt horrible about it. I can assume you that it that happens again, I'll make it for my team."
That loss was the first of the season for the Crusaders and set off a three-game losing streak that included a 56-54 loss to rival Don Bosco and a 59-53 loss to Cardinal Hayes of the Bronx. Those would be Bergen Catholic’s only three losses of the season.
"Not that it doesn't mean anything, but it was like a lifetime ago," Bergen Catholic coach Billy Armstrong said. "I think we are much better than when we played them and I think they are much better than when they played us."
The Crusaders enter Sunday on a 17-game winning streak and a dominant tear through the NJSIAA Tournament. During their run to the Non-Public A championship, the Crusaders beat their four opponents by an average margin of 30 points and scored 100 points in two of those wins – including against a St. Joseph of Montvale team currently ranked No. 15 in the state.
Bergen Catholic got its first test of the state tournament Friday in its first Tournament of Champions game in 17 years. Newark East Side led by 15 in the first half before the Crusaders came roaring back, eventually sealing a 79-75 win over the Red Raiders.
Xavier commit and 6-10 forward Zach Freemantle went off for 36 point and 14 rebounds to lead Bergen Catholic while Edert hit the go-ahead three-pointer in the fourth quarter that also pushed him past the 1,000-point mark for his career.
Freemantle and Edert had relatively quiet games against Ranney at the Boardwalk Showcase on Jan. 12, with Freemantle tallying 12 points and 10 rebounds and Edert netting 10 points. Junior Matt Zona was Bergen Catholic’s standout that night, putting up 16 points and seven rebounds.
Without Wheeler and Sarnor, Lewis and Antoine carried Ranney to the win over Bergen Catholic, but not without some help from their friends. Perkins came up with several key plays down the stretch, including a crucial chase-down block in the late stages of the fourth quarter.
Lewis was tasked with guarding Freemantle and limited Bergen Catholic’s big man to below his season average. Lewis expects to guard Freemantle again and this time, Ranney will have Wheeler to stick on Zona, who hurt the Panthers in the first meeting.
Keeping both Lewis and Wheeler out of foul trouble will be critical for Ranney, which has Autino on the bench to battle the Bergen bigs for some stretches of the game as well. The other key matchup will be point-guard battle between Edert against Sarnor. For Bergen Catholic to win, the Lewis-Wheeler-Sarnor trio cannot outscore Freemantle, Zona and Edert.
The x-factor for Ranney could be its shooting, which has not been sharp lately. The Panthers are 9-for-40 (22.5 percent) from three-point range over their last three games but have still managed to advance thanks to a relentless defensive effort that has held three straight quality opponents – Wildwood Catholic, Roselle Catholic and Moorestown to 50 points or fewer.
Antoine has found ways to score when his perimeter shot is not falling and when Sarnor, Lewis and Wheeler have found their respective offensive rhythms, he hasn’t needed to carry the load. The Shore’s all-time leading scorer enters Sunday 20 points shy of 2,500 for his career and given his 26 points in the first meeting between the two teams without Sarnor and Wheeler, 20 points on Sunday would be a put Ranney in a good position to win.
Klatsky has also found ways to impact the game without his shots falling. He attempted a combined three shots against Roselle Catholic and Moorestown but made two of them and has been more involved on the defensive end and on the glass while finding open teammates on offense. A winning Ranney formula has usually included Klatsky hitting at least two three-pointers and given Bergen Catholic’s torrid stretch on offense recently, he will probably have a hit a couple more on Sunday.
This shapes up to be a classic offense-vs.-defense battle and if you would have presented that back in January, most people might have assumed Ranney was “offense” and Bergen Catholic “defense”. The roles are reversed, however, and Ranney will try to turn in one more lockdown defensive effort against perhaps its toughest opponent to secure the Shore Conference’s first T of C championship.
The Pick: Ranney 62, Bergen Catholic 58