Camden's Headen back in his element

Tavaris Headen didn't play this season until Feb. 1 because he had to sit out for academic reasons. TOM GRALISH / Staff

The tears were real for Tavaris Headen, and all he was looking for was one final chance.

A 5-foot-9 senior point guard at Camden, Headen didn't play his first game this season until Feb. 1, after becoming academically eligible.

"It hurt me, and every night I cried," Headen said. "I wasn't part of the team."

He sure is part of it now, and once again Headen is putting his stamp on March.

For the second year in a row, Camden will compete in a state championship game. Last year, the Panthers lost to Newark Eastside, 60-54, in the Group 3 final.

On Sunday, the Panthers will meet Newark Tech at 2 p.m. in the state Group 2 title game at Rutgers.

"Each year, we seem to get a step closer, and it would be great to finish the deal," Headen said.

During the last three years with Headen as the starter, Camden has won three sectional titles, two in South Jersey Group 3 and this year in Group 2.

The school has won 44 South Jersey titles and 11 state championships.

Headen was an Inquirer first-team all-South Jersey performer last season when he averaged 18.5 points. In the state tournament, that average increased to 22.1.

The same pattern has emerged this season. In 14 games, he is averaging 15.3 points, but in the five state tournament games, the average is 18.8.

As the stakes increase, so does Headen's productivity.

"I love playing in the big games," he said.

When he wasn't able to play the game earlier this season, Headen took accountability.

"It was frustrating because I felt I let my team down," he said. "I was ignoring what I needed to do."

And while sitting out, all he was hoping for was eventual redemption.

"Since I felt I let the team down, I wanted to have a big end of the season," he said.

That included 21 points and four three-pointers in Thursday's 82-60 win over Matawan in the state semifinals.

More than the scoring has been the stability that Headen provides to a Camden team that starts two sophomores, a junior, and two seniors.

"When he came back, it took a lot of stress off the rest of the team because we didn't have to do as much," 6-4 sophomore Jamal Holloway said. "It's such a big help having him because he runs our offense."

Headen said it took three or four games to get his legs back, but any rust is long gone.

"Now that he has his legs, his shot, and his leadership, it's been a breath of fresh air with Tavaris back," Camden coach John Valore said.

Headen hopes to play college basketball and says Valore will help him sort though the various options.

There is nothing he can do about the lost time. Headen didn't blame anybody else, took his punishment, and vowed that he would play every game as if it were his last.

Now, his last game might be here. A career that has included three South Jersey championships and more than 1,000 career points at one of the state's most storied programs will conclude Sunday unless Camden wins to advance to the Tournament of Champions.

In December, Headen's basketball future was so uncertain.

Since then, the tears have dried up.

It's now mid-March, and Headen is clearly in his element.