By Phil Anastasia
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- In the big picture, Camden made major progress this season.
The Panthers built on last season's surprising South Jersey title and advanced a step farther in the post-season tournament, reaching Sunday's Group 3 state championship game at Rutgers University.
But that was cold comfort to the players and coaches after Camden dropped a 60-54 decision to Newark East Side before several hundred gold-and-purple-clad supporters in the Rutgers Athletic Center.
"We didn't come up here to lose," Camden coach Cetshwayo Byrd said. "It wasn't like, 'Ah, we made it this far.' We expected to win."
Camden (21-11) was in position to capture the 12th state title in the fabled history of South Jersey's most decorated boys' basketball program.
The Panthers built a 24-18 lead midway in the second quarter and held their last lead after junior guard Tavaris Headen (16 points) made a pair of free throws for a 28-26 edge early in the third quarter.
But Newark East Side (25-6) seized command behind guards Akbar Hoffman (20 points) and Stephen McNair (15 points) as well as forwards William Joyce, Abdul Lewis and Ismael Sanogo.
"We got outrebounded," Byrd said of Newark East Side's dominance of the backboards in the second half.
Camden's only senior starter, forward Amir Maddred, played one of his best games of the season. Maddred scored 18 and grabbed eight rebounds.
"I played my hardest," Maddred said. "We just couldn't pull away."
Outside shooting by Hoffman, McNair and Ahmad Harrison, who combined for four three-pointers in the second half, helped Newark East Side take command of the physical, fats-paced game.
The North Jersey team also turned up the defensive pressure, forcing 19 Camden turnovers and making five blocks.
"Too many turnovers," Byrd said.
With two freshmen, a sophomore and a junior in the starting lineup, Camden was one of the youngest teams in the state to advance deep in the tournament.
Headen, who led the team to its 43rd sectional title as well as its 22d appearance in the state finals, said the Panthers will be back in 2014.
"We'll be back next year," Headen said. "Next time we're going to win it."
Camden 14 12 10 18 -- 54
Newark East Side 10 16 15 19 -- 60
C: Tavaris Heraden 16, Jamal Holloway 2, Brad Hawkins 6, Amir Maddred 18, Rasool Hinson 4, Kelvin Davis 2, William McCants 6.
N: Akbar Hoffman 20, Jamar Gilbert 3, Abdul Lewis 4, Ahmad Harrison 10, Steve McNair 15, Ismael Sanogo 6, ReQuan Lynn 2.
Contact Phil Anastasia at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @PhilAnastasia on Twitter and read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.philly.com