Mike DePersia stood near midcourt, out of energy, out of words.
“I don’t even know what to say,” Haddonfield’s splendid senior guard said. “You can’t make this stuff up.”
Who could imagine Haddonfield, down by 14 early in the fourth quarter and by 11 with less than two minutes left, rallying to force overtime and beating Camden, 69-67, in the South Jersey Group 2 championship game?
Who could imagine Haddonfield senior Dan Fleming scoring 12 points in the final 1:45 of regulation, including a leaner of a three-pointer that tied the score at 63 at the 0:08 mark?
Who could imagine Haddonfield’s Drew Gavranich making the play of the game with a steal in the corner, leaving his feet to snatch the basketball and set the stage for Fleming’s tying basket?
Who could imagine two of South Jersey’s proudest programs, rumbling into overtime deep in the state tournament for third year in a row?
“They are such a storied program,” Haddonfield coach Paul Wiedeman said of Camden. “We’re so fortunate to play them. They brought out the best in us.”
Haddonfield improved to 29-1 and took another step in pursuit of a second straight state title.
But the Bulldawgs have never been forced to dig deeper, have never needed to be more resourceful, more resilient against such a talented and determined opponent.
“It was like a fight and the ref is giving the eight count and they’re getting up,” Camden coach Vic Carstaphen said of Haddonfield. “We just couldn’t deliver the knockout punch. They were fainting. They were fainting. And they kept fighting.”
Camden (18-10), the No. 2 seed, played one of its best games of the season. The Panthers even had a good look near the end of overtime, with a three-pointer that kicked off the rim.
“It was like the basketball gods, sometimes it just seems like it goes," Carstarphen said, his voice trailing off. “It hurts. I’m a grown man and it hurts. It hurts my kids.”
Sophomore swingman Jerome Brewer led Camden with 22 points. Sophomore forward TaQuan Woodley generated 11 points with 14 rebounds.
Camden led 52-38 early in the fourth. It still was 60-49 after Brewer’s three-pointer with 1:56 left.
“These kids, they want to stay together as long as possible," Wiedeman said after Haddonfield advanced to Thursday’s state semifinals at Perth Amboy.
Hounded by active Camden defenders for 94 feet for 32 minutes, DePersia scored 19, including a four-point play at the 2:54 mark of regulation and four free throws in the last 55 seconds of the fourth quarter. Fleming made a pair of three-pointers to cut into Camden’s lead, then drained three free throws to make it 62-58 at the 0:44 mark.
“We just said, ‘We’re not going to make it our last three minutes,’” Fleming said.
Gavranich’s steal with the score 63-60 gave Haddonfield possession and opened the door for one more Fleming three-pointer.
“That was the biggest play of the game, bigger than any of my shots,” Fleming said of Gavranich’s steal.
Said Gavranich: “We never give up on each other.”
In overtime, Fleming scored on an alley-oop, fed Dylan Heine for a backdoor layup and made a runner for the eventual winning points.
“He was amazing," DePersia said of Fleming. “So many big shots.”
The victory was the 100th over four seasons for Haddonfield’s seniors.
It also was the 473rd of Wiedeman’s career, one more than his father, Dave, won in South Jersey in his career, most of which was at Haddonfield.
Camden 17 12 16 16 4 – 67
Haddonfield 12 16 10 25 6 – 69
C: Ethan Tarte 5, Jerome Brewer 22, Lance Ware 12, TaQuan Woodley 11, El Khana Hidalgo 5, Nasir Lett 12.