In the locker room after the game, Haddonfield’s Mike DePersia listed himself at about 5-foot-10.
He was still a bit shaky, still wide-eyed.
He was recounting the final play in overtime, talking about it as if every hard lesson he’d learned in basketball had been applied to that one moment.
On this stage, against this team, DePersia said, you have to play big. And you have to play fearless.
“I know I’m not the tallest player on the court — but I just did the only thing I could do in that moment,” he said.
With three seconds left in overtime Saturday afternoon, DePersia dove into the lane and put back a missed layup to seal a thrilling 54-53 win over Camden in the South Jersey Group 2 semifinals.
The game — played in a sold out Cherry Hill West gym as Haddonfield undergoes renovations — was payback after Camden knocked off Haddonfield West in overtime in last year’s sectional championship.
Camden, in fact, had knocked Haddonfield out of the playoffs in three of the last four years and had won the last five South Jersey titles.
But thanks to a gutsy performance that won’t be soon be forgotten around Haddonfield, the second-seeded Bulldogs (26-3) are set for a championship matchup on Monday against the winner of the Lower Cape May-Barnegat game.
“For a while it looked like it was going to be just like what happened last year,” said DePersia, whose Bulldogs trailed by 14 at halftime. “But this win really shows how resilient we are and how we fight as a team. \[Camden\] might have a lot more talent — people might think they do. But the way we’re coached, the way we play, you just have to take that out of your head.”
DePersia, a junior, led all scorers with 20 points. Junior forward Dan Fleming chipped in 19. Eight of those points came in overtime, including three free throws after being fouled beyond the arc with 1:16 left to give the Bulldogs a 52-50 lead.
Nasir Hanson answered on the other end, sinking an open three-pointer, his only points of the game, to hand the lead back to Camden.
That set the stage for the final play, which sent the sizable Haddonfield student section storming the court.
“We didn’t want this to be our last game,” Fleming said.
Camden (21-6) — led by Lance Ware’s 14 points — opened the game on fire, particularly on the defensive end, as it built a comfortable lead.
But Haddonfield was a different team in the second half. Much of that was due to DePersia’s leadership running the point — even while being double- and triple-teamed — and some craftiness on both ends of the court by his teammates.
The Bulldogs also switched to a matchup zone on defense and were forcing more turnovers. And Camden went cold shooting, particularly star guard Corey Greer.
“We were able to get the ball out of half court in the second half,” said Haddonfield coach Paul Wiedeman.
Haddonfield tied the score at 35-35 when Aiden Blake hit Dylan Heine on a backdoor cut, to set up an easy layup.
More than anything, momentum shifted because of Haddonfield’s ability to not fold in the spotlight, to stare down one of the state’s legendary programs and refuse to go away.
With 2:42 left in the fourth quarter, DePersia tied the score on a shot that was taken about six feet beyond the three-point line. The message was clear at that point: This year is different.
“I wasn’t going to go out not shooting,” DePersia said. “I was going to leave it all on the floor.”
Camden 11 19 5 9 9 – 53
Haddonfield 7 9 15 13 10 – 54
C: Corey Greer 5, Saleem Brown 11, Lance Ware 14, Ethan Tarte 6, Myles Thompson 14, Nasir Hanson 3.
H: Mike DePersia 20, Dan Fleming 19, Dylan Heine 6, Aiden Blake 8, Ben Schroeter 1.