By Phil Anastasia
Cetshwayo Byrd is a Camden guy. He grew up in the city. He went to "The High."
Byrd has a special appreciation for the excitement that surrounds the Camden basketball program in March, when the Panthers are on the prowl for another state title.
"We're going to Rutgers," Byrd said after Camden scrambled for a 56-52 victory over Lawrence in the Group 3 state semifinals on Thursday afternoon at Eastern.
Junior guard Tavaris Headen scored 26 points as Camden (21-10) advanced to face the Teaneck-Newark Eastside winner in the state championship game Sunday at Rutgers University.
"We're not done yet," said Headen, who hit a short jumper for a 51-48 lead with one minute, 51 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and added two free throws for a 53-48 lead at the 1:39 mark.
Camden is seeking its 12th state title and first since the 2000 team -- led by legends Dajuan Wagner and Arthur Barclay -- won the Group 3 state title as well as the Tournament of Champions. Camden lost the Group 3 state title game in 2001 and 2005 and lost the Group 2 state title game in 2009.
Freshman forward Jamal Holloway collected 11 points and nine rebounds and freshman guard Brad Hawkins added eight points, including three free throws in the final 25 seconds, for Camden, the South Jersey champion.
The Panthers committed 26 turnovers and were hurt by Lawrence's offensive rebounding, as the Central Jersey champions generated 12 points on put-backs.
Lawrence (19-11), which has beaten Northern Burlington in the sectional title game, was 6-for-20 from the foul line.
"It wasn't pretty," Byrd said of his team's victory. "I tell them all the time, 'Adversity is going to happen.' What matters is that you have to stick together and fight through it.
"That's what these guys did today. We came together and we fought through it and we're going to Rutgers."
Headen, a 5-9 lefty, has been Camden's driving force through the last four weeks of the season. He's averaged 22.7 points in the last 13 games and 23.4 points in five tournament games.
Headen scored 17 in the second half, when he was 6-for-6 from the line. His short jumper, steal and two free throws in a whirlwind, 12-second span turned a 49-48 lead into a 53-48 lead and enabled the Panthers to weather some defensive lapses in the final 90 seconds.
"He willed us, he willed us," Byrd said of Headen. "He took some bad shots but he basically has the green light. He's got heart. He just doesn't want to lose."
In Byrd's two seasons, Camden is 39-23. At times -- like for much of Thursday's big game before a near-capacity crowd -- the Panthers have been inconsistent.
"These guys (his players) are going to be the death of me," Byrd said with a smile in the locker room after the game.
But Camden under Byrd and his assistants has become a team that wins in the state tournament. Bottom line: The Panthers are 9-1 in playoff games over the last two seasons.
That's a success rate that's reminscient of Camden's post-season play under legendary former coach Clarence Turner, who led the program to seven state titles and 22 sectional titles.
"I know I got a long way to go, said Byrd, a 1988 Camden graduate. "Coach Turner set bar high. By no means am I going to be another coach Turner.
"But I'm trying to do some things that he instilled in this basketball program, trying to bring it back and give the community life."
Camden 9 10 20 17 -- 56
Lawrence 9 12 19 12 -- 52
C: Jamal Holloway 11, Brad Hawkins 8, Tavaris Headen 26, Amir Maddred 9, Kelvin Davis 2.
L: Russell Austin 11, Semai Mitchell 11, Jordan Glover 16, Cameron Kitchen 5, Herb Ellis 7, Craig Mitchell 2.
Contact Phil Anastasia at email@example.com. Follow @PhilAnastasia on Twitter.