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TOMS RIVER -- From the first game senior Jahlil Bethea played as a member of the Ranney boys basketball team, he and his team were in survival mode.

For the last month since the Patrick School transfer debuted on Jan. 14, the Panthers battled from the brink of potentially missing the Shore Conference Tournament for the first time in eight years and made it all the way to the conference semifinals for the first time in four years.

With just under two minutes to go in Tuesday's Shore Conference Tournament semifinal against a second-seeded St. Rose squad that had already beaten Ranney twice by an average of 16 points during the regular season, the battle that the Panthers fought for the last month appeared at its end.

Then, Ranney and Bethea paid off their year-long perseverance with a comeback for the ages.

PHOTO GALLERY: Ranney vs. St. Rose by Ray Rich Photography

Ranney junior Drew Buck celebrates Ranney's come-from-behind, overtime win over St. Rose in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)
Ranney junior Drew Buck celebrates Ranney's come-from-behind, overtime win over St. Rose in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)

Trailing by 13 points with under two minutes to go, Ranney mounted an improbable rally that ended with the 11th-seeded Panthers celebrating a stunning, 77-73, overtime victory over St. Rose that sends them to the Shore Conference Tournament championship game for the third time in six years and first time since 2019.

"We said before the game, we are probably the only people in the building who believe we have an opportunity to win," Ranney coach Tahj Holden said. "I told them it was going to be a 32-minute game -- or in this case, a 36-minute game -- and we just had to compete until the final buzzer. Our guys did a really good job not hanging their heads in the fourth-quarter down 11 with 90 seconds to go."

Just as the idea of his return sustained Ranney through its early-season swoon, Bethea kept his team afloat throughout Tuesday's game with a career-high 29 points on 8-for-17 shooting from the field, 4-for-8 from beyond the three-point arc and 9-for-10 from the free-throw line. Bethea scored 16 points with 4-for-7 shooting from beyond the arc in the first half and ignited the comeback with 13 points in the fourth quarter.

"We can't give up," Bethea said of his team's message. "Even if we go down 20, 30, we can't give up. We just needed to get stops on defense and that's what we did today."

Bethea's biggest shot, however, was one that did not actually drop through the cylinder. With six seconds remaining and Ranney trailing, 65-63, Bethea stole a St. Rose inbounds pass from under its own basket and drove to the basket in search of the tying score. Bethea got off a clean layup attempt and when 6-foot-8 St. Rose junior Matt Hodge made contact with the basket structure before Bethea's shot hit the backboard, Bethea was credited with the tying score on a goal-tending call with 3.4 seconds remaining.

"I was like the safety, just coming up from the back to try to get a steal," Bethea said. "As soon as he threw it, I ran up, I saw it, got it, went up. At first, I thought I just missed the layup, but then they called the goal-tend, so I was really happy with that."

Hodge got off a potential game-winning three-point attempt from the left corner that rimmed out as time expired and, in a scenario that seemed unthinkable less than two minutes earlier, the SCT semifinal was heading into overtime.

"We knew this game wasn't over," senior Isaac Hester said. "Coach just kept telling us it wasn't over and to just keep playing, keep getting stops, keep playing for one another. We fought until the end, got those extra four minutes and overtime really showed our toughness. We played defense, got the stops we needed, we executed on offense and a bunch of guys stepped up."

Hester poured in 23 points and grabbed 12 rebounds for Ranney and while he did not have the same shooting touch Tuesday that he had in his 33-point quarterfinal game on Saturday vs. Toms River North, the Ranney senior came up with key baskets in the second half (16 points) and drew a significant amount of defensive attention.

"Jah had opportunities to drive because they were so focused on stopping Isaac," Holden said. "Guys are finding opportunities to take their shots and be successful. Isaac is always going to be able to get his in a one-on-one situation, but that's why we have a whole team."

Bethea's game-tying goal-tend score marked the first time Ranney tied the game since falling behind, 1-0, in the first minute of the game and in overtime, a post-up and finish by junior Drew Buck gave the Panthers their first lead, 69-67.

Hodge then tied the game with a basket as he was fouled, but missed the ensuing free throw that would have pushed the Purple Roses in front. Free-throw shooting was at the forefront of the St. Rose collapse, with the Purple Roses shooting 8-for-20 for the game and 6-for-17 during the fourth quarter and overtime.

St. Rose did grab the lead on its next possession and at great cost to Ranney. Bethea was called for an offensive foul on the first possession of overtime, then picked up his fifth foul when he grabbed freshman Jayden Hodge driving along the baseline with 1:59 left in overtime. Hodge made one of the two free throws to give St. Rose a 70-69 edge and now, Ranney would have to find a way to win without Bethea -- just as the Panthers struggled to do for the first month of the season.

"I have a lot of faith in my guys," Bethea said. "During the whole process of me sitting out, it was great to see the team keep fighting for each other. I know they needed me, but at the same time, I knew they could do it without me too. I had a lot of faith in them and they got it done. I'm proud of them."

As was the case for the last seven minutes of Tuesday's game, Ranney's reprieve started with help from St. Rose. When Hodge missed the second of two free throws, an over-the-back foul on the rebound sent Buck to the free-throw line, where the junior calmly sank both shots to push Ranney back in front, 71-70.

On the next St. Rose possession, Jayden Hodge threw pass in to his older brother that was mistimed just enough that Matt Hodge had to catch it awkwardly going toward the basket. As he clutched the ball over his head, freshman Shaan Nayer -- playing in place of Bethea -- wrestled the ball loose and senior Glen Cantalupo picked it up for a steal.

Cantalupo quickly gave the ball to Hester, who fired it up court to sophomore MeSean Williams for the layup and a 73-70 Ranney lead.

"With Jah fouling out, we needed guys to step up and everyone did," Hester said. "Shaan came in and played great defense, MeSean making huge shots, Glen battling inside, Drew hitting big shots. It was a team effort, especially in overtime."

Jayden Hodge missed a close-range shot through what appeared to be some contact from Nayer and Ranney then milked the clock down to 41.7 seconds before the Purple Roses fouled Cantalupo, who is the lowest scorer of the five Ranney starters. The senior missed both free throws, but St. Rose again could not capitalize when Jayden Hodge misfired on a three-point attempt.

PHOTO GALLERY: Ranney vs. St. Rose by Ray Rich Photography

St. Rose freshman Jayden Hodge tries to fight through Ranney senior Glen Cantalupo (10) and sophomore MeSean Williams. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)
St. Rose freshman Jayden Hodge tries to fight through Ranney senior Glen Cantalupo (10) and sophomore MeSean Williams. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)

The next time down the floor, it was Buck who went to the free-throw line for Ranney and the junior again hit both shots to put Ranney ahead, 75-70, with 18 seconds left. The capped Buck's scoring day at 18 points, which included a 6-for-6 performance from the foul line.

St. Rose caught a break from Ranney when the Panthers fouled sophomore Peter Mauro with 12.8 seconds left, but Mauro managed just one of the two free throws.

Williams then cashed in on both of his attempts to effectively seal it for Ranney with a 77-71 lead with 10 seconds to go. While St. Rose cost itself at the free-throw line, Ranney made its comeback possible by shooting 17-for-20 in the fourth quarter and overtime and 22-for-26 for the game.

Matt Hodge tipped in shot at the buzzer and Ranney's bench emptied onto the court for the celebration.

That celebration was an improbable one considering where Ranney stood with 1:56 remaining in the fourth quarter. St. Rose led, 64-51, and was heading to the free-throw line with a chance to extend what was already its largest lead of the game. The Purple Roses freefall started, fittingly, with the missed front-end of a 1-and-1, followed by Bethea hitting both ends of a 1-and-1 on the other end to trim the deficit to 11.

"It was all about those guys in the locker room," Holden said of his players. "There were no X's and O's I drew up that made a big difference. It was just going out and competing and trying to win every possession, one possession at a time. Once we had that mentality in the fourth quarter, even when we were down, we felt comfortable."

That missed free throw started an eight-possession stretch for St. Rose in which the Purple Roses turned the ball over four times and shot 1-for-6 from the free-throw line. The only possession that did not end with a turnover or a missed free throw was Matt Hodge's three-point attempt as time expired.

"At that point, we were just looking for opportunities and trying to capitalize," Holden said. "They missed some free throws, we forced some turnovers, they had some guys foul out who were important to their team and that's all part of the game. Things are going to happen and you have to be ready to take advantage, just like things are going to go wrong and you have to keeping playing."

Hester cut the St. Rose lead to 64-55 with a drive to the basket and after a St. Rose turnover, Bethea got a floater to drop to cut the deficit to seven with 49 seconds left.

PHOTO GALLERY: Ranney vs. St. Rose by Ray Rich Photography

Ranney senior Jahlil Bethea. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)
Ranney senior Jahlil Bethea. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)

After the third of three straight St. Rose turnovers, Bethea earned a trip to the free-throw line, only to miss the front-end of a 1-and-1. Hester, however, grabbed the offensive rebound and was fouled on the way up while drawing the fifth foul on St. Rose sophomore guard Bryan Ebeling, who finished with 14 points and three assists.

Hester hit both free throws and Jayden Hodge missed the front-end of another 1-and-1, but the Purple Roses won the offensive rebound and Mauro earned a trip to the line. The sophomore, however, missed both and on the second miss, junior Gio Panzini picked up his fifth foul of the game.

Not only did St. Rose lose Panzini and his 18 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in the game, but the Purple Roses stopped the clock again while sending Buck -- Ranney's most free-throw shooter -- to the line with a chance to pull the Panthers within one possession. Buck drained both free throws and Ranney found itself trailing, 64-61, with 15.9 seconds left and in the midst of a 10-0 run.

PHOTO GALLERY: Ranney vs. St. Rose by Ray Rich Photography

St. Rose junior Gio Panzini. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)
St. Rose junior Gio Panzini. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)

Ranney fouled St. Rose freshman Tyler Cameron, who withstood some mind games from Bethea on the free-throw line to hit the first shot and push the lead back to two possessions. Cameron's second attempt was no good and Buck fired a pass up to Hester, who scored at the basket to cut the lead to 65-62 with 6.3 seconds left.

After all that work by Ranney to pull to within two points, St. Rose was still just a successful inbounds pass and two free throws away from clinching the victory. Out of a timeout, Cantalupo deflected Cameron's inbound pass away to knock half-a-second off the clock.

Cameron got another chance to get the ball in and tried to hit sophomore Evan Romano, but the ball was out of the reach of Romano. Bethea was roving the middle of the press formation and pounced, picking the ball up and driving at the rim, where Matt Hodge gave Ranney another break when he inadvertently hit the backboard in scrambling to block Bethea's shot.

Despite the goal-tend and a couple of fourth-quarter turnovers, Matt Hodge played a near-flawless game for the Purple Roses. He finished with 21 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists while shooting 10-for-12 from the field -- his only two misses coming on the catch-and-shoot three-point attempt at the end of regulation and a missed tip-in before scoring the last basket of the game.

Since finishing with the No. 1 ranking in the state in 2018-29, Ranney has remained a competitive Shore Conference team with some flashes of brilliance, but had not found success in the Shore Conference Tournament until Tuesday night. The Panthers were eliminated by Manasquan in the 2020 SCT quarterfinals, fell victim to an upset by Marlboro in the 2021 Shore Conference postseason, and were overmatched at Manasquan in last year's SCT round of 16.

As Holden learned when his sophomore-heavy 2016-17 lost to Marlboro in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals in Toms River, it only takes one game to pull off the big upset. While Marlboro's win over Ranney was a monumental moment for that program and an early setback for a promising Ranney team, it did not involve a team erasing a 13-point deficit in under two minutes.

With Tuesday's win, what is left of the bitter taste left by that 2017 loss is just about gone for Holden and is replaced by the satisfaction of watching a team that starts a six-foot senior center (Cantalupo) with no varsity experience prior to this season and does not have a player above 6-3 (Buck) advance to the Shore Conference Tournament championship game.

"When you have had teams that were super successful like we had (in 2017-2019), it's hard to get back to that level," Holden said. "I think what's important, and our guys recognize it, is we're not the team with Scottie (Lewis) and Bryan (Antoine). We're our own, individual Ranney team and once we got past what we have done in the past, we were able to move forward."

PHOTO GALLERY: Ranney vs. St. Rose by Ray Rich Photography

Ranney senior Isaac Hester. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)
Ranney senior Isaac Hester. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)

Holden's first task as head coach at Ranney was to live up to incredibly lofty expectations for a program that had zero basketball history before he and the heralded freshman class that included Bryan Antoine and Scottie Lewis showed up together in the winter of 2015. This year, the challenge has been entirely different: develop a team out of a mix of two returning starters, one transfer and a handful of varsity-basketball novices into a championship contender.

At 5-6 through 11 games and coming off a loss to a 5-15 Neptune team, a run to the SCT final seemed like a pipedream for Ranney, even with Bethea set to join the team in game No. 12. In his first game, Bethea helped Ranney beat an 18-5 Immaculata team on the road and the Panthers nailed down a spot in the tournament with late-season wins over McNair Academy and Matawan.

Once in the field, the Panthers rode the wave to wins over Lacey, No. 6 Jackson Memorial and No. 3 Toms River North.

"The last six or seven games, we have really been able to put the pieces together once everybody got healthy and eligible," Holden said. "I told our guys it was going to be a slow build toward the end of the season. As long as we're playing our best basketball towards the end of the season, I'll be happy."

In both cases, Holden has delivered and he hopes his team has one more win in them when it takes on top-seeded Manasquan Sunday in the SCT championship game at Monmouth University. The matchup will mark the fourth time in the last five years Ranney and Manasquan have met in the Shore Conference, with Manasquan winning the last two after Ranney beat the Warriors in the 2019 championship game at Monmouth.

"We love being the underdog," Hester said. "We see the writeups picking us to lose and it gives us fire. I have been an underdog my whole life. I have a saying that the underdog turns into the wolf, and we turned into a wolf today."


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