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Mainland's rally falls short in S.J. Group III championship game

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mainland1 Matt Strabuk/Mainland's Kenny Randall tries to get a shot off with 6.7 seconds left and his team trailing by a point in Monday's South Jersey final against Delsea. LINWOOD – It ended with desperate players flailing for possession of the ball, diving to the floor and lunging for one final opportunity to win a championship.

It was an exciting, draining finish – but not the perfect ending the Mainland Regional High School boys had hoped for.

The Mustangs rallied but couldn’t quite finish off an incredible comeback Monday night, losing to Delsea, 54-53, in the South Jersey Group III championship game in a loud, raucous, sold-out Mainland "Corral."

“We just wanted to play the game like it was our last opportunity,” said senior Darius Jerkins, who scored 11 of his game-high 24 points in the fourth quarter. “It was our last game on our home court, so we wanted to make one final push to take a lead. We felt like we would do it.”

Fellow senior Kenny Randall had 16 points and seven rebounds. Ronnie Russell led Delsea (22-8) with 18 points, hitting four 3-point shots, and Kenny Braxton added 14 for the Crusaders.

The resilient Mustangs trailed by as many as 15 points in the third quarter and by 11 at the start of the fourth, but came back to pull within a point on a Matt McLaughlin 3-point play with 34.1 seconds left.

The final sequence was a microcosm of the entire game: so tantalizingly close, yet so frustrating for Mainland. They regained possession off a Delsea turnover, but instead of taking a timeout (much to coach Dan Williams’ later regret) they set up a play to get it inside to their “bread and butter” big men Randall and Jerkins. Both of them had opportunities to score, but …

“The play was designed to kick the ball out to the guard at the corner,” Randall said. “It wasn’t there, so I kind of just dribbled to the paint, and bobbled it a little bit. I wasn’t expecting to be able to go up with it. I thought I was going to get a foul called. I went up strong and flipped it up there. It didn’t go in. Darius had an opportunity to get it but it kind of slipped through his hands.”

 “I got the ball and was about to go up,” Jerkins said. “Somebody tipped it out. It was a scramble. I fell to the ground, threw it up, somebody else had it and that was the end of the game.

“It’s frustrating, because that was the shot I wanted right there. I wanted the ball to be in my hands in the last seconds.”

“If one of our big players has a chance to make a play at the end, I’m not sure what more you can really ask for,” Williams said. “I’m just glad the kids got to play in this whole atmosphere, and I’m glad they showed everybody that they’re tough, and they’re not going to be pushed around.”

The top seeded Mustangs (18-11) struggled from the perimeter all game, hitting only one 3-point shot, and turning the ball over numerous times. They had to rely on their one-two inside punch of Jerkins and Randall, but the failure to hit outside shots allowed the Delsea defense to collapse inside on the big men.

“I don’t want to bring my guards down, they did a good job this game,” Randall said. “But I feel like if we had made a couple more threes, it would have kept the Delsea defense honest. It would have made a big impact on the game.”

Monday’s loss was the culmination of a rare and exciting week for Mainland basketball, with the top-seeded Mustangs winning three home playoff games and earning their first South Jersey title game appearance in 24 years.

“It means a lot, because the last few years we’ve been struggling in this program,” Jerkins said. “But we came out of the gutter and did it big, and it got the community closer. We had the fans come out, and everybody enjoyed the games."

“To go from a sort of also-ran in South Jersey to a team that people have to get up for, and to get within a basket of winning the South Jersey final, that’s something (the players) should really be proud of,” said Williams, who was a member of the 1990 team that went to the previous S.J. final. “It’s a credit to our fans and the administration here for getting everybody pumped up.

“It was a great week, it really was. It didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but it was a lot of fun.”

mainland2 Matt Strabuk/Mainland's Drew Riska guards the inbounds pass by Delsea's Kenny Braxton late in Monday's SJ final. mainland3 Matt Strabuk/Mainland's Darius Jerkins goes up for a slam dunk in the fourth quarter of Monday's South Jersey final. mainland5 Matt Strabuk/Mainland's Darius Jerkins takes a shot in traffic during the fourth quarter of Monday's game. mainland5 Matt Strabuk/The Mainland Corral was packed with 'Corral Crazies' and plenty of other fans for Monday's South Jersey final. mainland6 Matt Strabuk/This foul shot by Matt McLaughlin completed a 3-point play and drew the Mustangs within a point with 34.1 seconds left. mainland7 Matt Strabuk/Mainland senior Darius Jerkins walks off the court for the last time after the Mustangs' one-point loss to Delsea in the South Jersey Group III championship game.


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