JACKSON, N.J. -- In the end, Baba Ajike and Pat Corbett were back on the court, the basketball in their hands in the frantic, final moments of the Non-Public South A title game.
And moments later, something else was in their hands as well: the sectional championship trophy.
“Words can’t describe this moment,” Corbett said after Camden Catholic’s 40-34 victory over archrival Paul VI before a large and loud crowd at Jackson Liberty High School.
Camden Catholic’s 19th victory in a row improved the Irish’s record to 26-3, secured their second straight Non-Public South A title and propelled them to Saturday’s state final at Toms River North.
Corbett, a senior guard who missed the first meeting between the Olympic Conference National Division teams with a knee injury and played at less than 100 percent in the second game, was all present and accounted for in the title clash.
The 5-foot-10 Corbett scored just three points, but his ballhandling, poise and decision-making against Paul VI’s pressure defense -- especially when the Eagles made a desperate surge in the game’s last three minutes -- were key to the Irish victory.
“We don’t win the game without him,” Camden Catholic coach Matt Crawford said.
Ajike, a 6-foot-6 senior who does a lot of everything, finished with 15 points and eight rebounds despite missing significant stretches of the game with foul trouble.
“It was frustrating, but I tried not to let it get to me,” Ajike said.
Crawford said he wrestled with his decision to sit Ajike, especially when Paul VI took command in the second quarter.
“He wasn’t happy and I was second-guessing myself,” Crawford said. “But I wanted him out there at the end of the game.”
Both players were on the floor during a pressure-packed fourth quarter, when color-coordinated student sections from both schools threatened to raise the roof of the arena with their cheers.
Ajike scored six points in the fourth quarter, making a driving layup for a 34-27 lead with 3 minutes, 45 seconds on the clock and sealing the victory with two free throws at the 0:09 mark.
His work on defense and on the backboards was just as valuable.
“He means so much to us in our matchup zone,” Corbett said of Ajike. “When he’s out there, we all play with confidence.”
Corbett was kicking himself after the game for missing a couple of free throws in the final two minutes, but his ability to bring up the basketball against Paul VI’s full-court defense and get the Irish into their offensive sets was priceless in holding off the Eagles’ late rally.
“He wants the ball in his hands,” Crawford said of Corbett. “He wants to be in those pressure situations.”
Ajike said Corbett’s return to full health was the difference in the third meeting between the fierce rivals.
“He’s the X factor,” Ajike said.
Camden Catholic also got strong work from senior forward Uche Okafor, who scored nine points with eight rebounds, and sophomore swingman Zach Hicks, who also scored nine and was a major factor on the boards with seven rebounds.
Camden Catholic took command by scoring the first 10 points of the third quarter, with Ajike contributing five points and Hicks making a three-pointer for 24-17 lead.
Sophmore guard Jalen Boyd-Savage led the way with 19 points for Paul VI (25-4), which had beaten Camden Catholic twice in the regular season.
Boyd-Savage’s three-point play made it 36-32 with 2:05 left and his layup cut the lead to 36-34 at the 1:40 mark.
But Camden Catholic’s defense held firm in the final 90 seconds, with senior Valen Tejada making a huge steal, and free throws from Corbett, Tejada, and Ajike sealed the deal.
“Nothing is easy in Non-Public A,” Ajike said. “Paul VI is a great team. This is a great win, but now we need to get one more.”
Camden Catholic 6 8 16 10 – 40
Paul VI 8 9 5 12 – 34
CC: Baba Ajike 15, Uche Okafor 9, Pat Corbett 3, 9, Valen Tejada 4.