Camden improves as season rolls on

For a team that is 12-2 and has played the No. 1 team in the state to almost even terms, Camden's boys' basketball team understands that it is far from a finished product.

Still, there likely are not many teams that would relish facing the defending South Jersey Group 2 champions in this year's tournament, and for good reason.

Camden may not have overwhelming size, but there is plenty of experience and some of the area's better talent.

So the scary part is that at 12-2, with an opening 51-50 overtime loss to Eastern and last week's 50-46 defeat to NJ.com's No. 1 New Jersey team St. Anthony, Camden is headed in the right direction.

The only problem is sometimes there is a detour on the way, usually stationed at the foul line. This season the Panthers are shooting 61 percent from the line.

In their loss to Eastern they were 10 of 21 from the foul line, and they were 8-14 against St. Anthony.

It isn't from a lack of practice.

"We work on it all the time," said junior Brad Hawkins, who is averaging 14.2 points per game and as a receiver is one of the best football prospects in the state.

He's not too bad in basketball, either.

Neither is another football standout, 6-foot-4 junior Jamal Holloway, who is averaging 19.7 points and 13.6 rebounds.

Teams would be hard-pressed to find a better trio in South Jersey than Hawkins, Holloway and senior guard Rasool Hinson, who is averaging 13.3 points and 3.6 assists.

The other starters are senior guard Will McCants (7.7 ppg.) and 6-4 freshman Myles Thompson (7.4 ppg., 5.5 rpg.).

It's a team that can turn up the heat defensively and also shows resiliency. Earlier this year Camden won an 85-79 triple-overtime game at Shawnee. On Thursday, the Panthers gutted out a 51-47 overtime win over host Lenape despite shooting 14 for 26 from the foul line.

Camden was persistent, and despite missing several close-range shots, the Panthers kept fighting, which is exactly what is needed against Lenape.

And good luck to any Group 4 team that has to deal with Lenape, traditionally one of South Jersey's stingiest defensive teams and certainly living up to that billing this year.

One thing is for sure - Camden's schedule will prepare it for the tournament.

In the next two games, the Panthers could go a long way toward earning the No. 1 seed and home advantage throughout the sectional tournament.

On Saturday, Camden meets one of the state's top teams, Ewing, at Rancocas Valley and then on Monday, in a battle of The Inquirer's top two South Jersey teams, the No. 2 Panthers play host to No. 1 Camden Catholic.

"We're very excited about these two games," Hawkins said.

It will certainly provide a measuring stick.

If there is one thing that Camden has proven, it is that it can get up for premier matchups.

"When the pressure is on, these guys really compete," said John Valore, now in his second season coaching Camden.

The Panthers don't go deep to their bench, although senior guard Tory Whiting is a key veteran who provides a major spark.

Still, this is a team that like many in high school must stay out of foul trouble, and for now, has to increase its proficiency from the foul line.

Yet it says something that a team that hasn't quite jelled is 12-2 against a tough schedule and rightly feels it doesn't have to take a backseat to anybody.

"If we are playing our game, we don't feel there is a team in the state that can mess with us," Hawkins said.

So between now and March, the Panthers will continue to work to refine their game. And by then, messing with Camden should become even more difficult than it is right now.


mnarducci@phillynews.com

@sjnard