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BURLINGTON CITY -- The heartache was evident by the looks on the faces of seniors DJ Thomson and George Mitchell, but just as clear was the pride they exhibit in their school and the understanding of what this basketball season has meant to the entire town.

The best season of Keyport High School boys basketball in nearly two decades came to an end in heartbreaking fashion on Tuesday night when a frenetic fourth-quarter rally fell one point short and the visiting Red Raiders fell to top-seeded Burlington City, 74-73, in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 1 sectional championship game.

Trailing by double digits for most of the final three quarters and down by 15 at one point in the fourth quarter, Keyport closed the gap to eight, then six, and suddenly it was a four-point game with under a minute to play. A second consecutive clutch three-pointer by senior Anthony Longo trimmed Burlington City's lead to 73-71 with 20.8 seconds left. Izaiah Johnson then made the second of two free throws with 16.5 seconds left, meaning Keyport had one final possession to attempt to tie the game. Longo, who drained four threes on the night, didn't have a clean look but he kicked it to the corner for a wide-open three, but the shot rimmed out as the final seconds ticked down. The loose ball was eventually put back in to make it 74-73, but with just 1.5 seconds left the buzzer sounded as soon as Burlington Cty inbounded the ball.

Photo: Robert Badders
Photo: Robert Badders

The Blue Devils' victory gave them their third straight Central Jersey Group 1 sectional title and denied Keyport its first title since 2004. Johnson scored a game-high 24 for Burlington City and fellow senior Dejuan Hunter scored 17.

"They left everything out on the floor, what else is there to say," said Keyport head coach Phil Recco. "That comeback we had just fell a little short. There's nothing for them to hang their heads over. This group of seniors took us a long way. We knew they were special even before they got here and they played that way up until the very last second. It's just tough right now."

"We prepared ourselves all four years for this moment," Thomson said. "We saw (the Burlington City lead) was 15 and I said to George, 'it's not over. It's never over with us'. That last shot just rimmed out."

"We couldn't ask for anything more than that," Recco said. "It just didn't go down for us tonight."

As they have since they arrived at Keyport Hgh School as freshmen, Thomson, Mitchell, and Longo led the way for the Red Raiders as they battled down to their very last breath. Thomson scored a team-high 21, including nine points in the fourth quarter, while Mitchell had a double-double with 20 points and at least 10 rebounds. He scored eight points in the fourth quarter and helped start the rally with his rebounding at both ends of the floor. Longo, who like Thomson is a four-year starter, scored 15 points, including four three-pointers. Two of those shots came in the final minute and helped Keyport make it a one-possession game when minutes earlier it looked like Burlington City was going to cruise to the title.

The grit and determination they showed in the final high school basketball game of their careers is a major reason why there was a sea of red in the stands at Burlington Cty. Keyport's fans, the Rowdy Raiders, packed a bus for the 60-mile drive to support the team. There was even more demand from fans who wanted to attend the game but could not because of limited capacity, so a viewing party was hosted at McDonagh's Pub & Restaurant in downtown Keyport. This team embodied the town of Keyport and the people loved them for it.

"It says a lot about the town," Thomson said. "Sports mean everything to this town so when we start winning the entire town comes out to support us. It's a great feeling."

Keyport seniors DJ Thomson (left) and George Mitchell. Photo: Robert Badders
Keyport seniors DJ Thomson (left) and George Mitchell.
Photo: Robert Badders

"This is an amazing group and I knew that since they were young," Recco said. "They went to kindergarten together and they all stayed home and came up together. It's a small town and the fans came out just to support them because of their work ethic and the way they do things. It's an unbelievable group and I'll never forget them, that's for sure."

"I think it says a lot about Keyport," Mitchell said. "Things aren't always easy over there and we're trying to take our name and bring it up. And I think the whole year we showed we have a lot of grit and we can play with the big dogs like we did today."

Both teams were sloppy in the early going with traveling violations and turnovers on the first five possessions of the game. Both teams eventually settled down enough to find the basket and the first quarter played to a 15-15 tie heading into the second period.

That's when things started to get away from Keyport. The Red Raiders were still committing way too many turnovers and Burlington City's full-court press only exacerbated the issue. The Blue Devils opened the second quarter on a 9-2 run to take a 24-17 lead and stretched the advantage to 38-26 at halftime by out-scoring Keyport 23-11 in the second quarter.

"We were letting them control the game," Thomson said. "With that team, you can't let it turn into three, four baskets in a row, and that's what happened. Once we started to relax and get in our spots we made a comeback."

Keyport played much better in the third quarter but was barely able to make up any ground as Burlington City held a 55-44 lead going into the fourth quarter. At 71-61 with just over two minutes left it was hard to imagine Burlington Cty letting its lead slip away, but a combination of things helped Keyport roar back. Burlington City slowed its pace considerably on offense and that seemed to take the Blue Devils out of their rhythm. The shots stopped falling and Mitchell and company were there to clean the glass. The Blue Devils continued to press but now the Red Raiders had an answer and started to generate fast-break points. Mitchell scored under the basket to make it 71-63, then Thomson scored in transition to cut the lead to 71-65. After Burlington City made one of two free throws, Longo buried a three to make it a four-point game at 72-68 with 52.7 seconds left.

Keyport got hot at the right time, just with not enough time left.

"Maybe the atmosphere and the environment rattled us a little in the first half and we were out of sorts," Recco said. "In the second half we settled down a little bit and started getting some better possessions on offense. It was just a little too late."

Senior classes like this one are nearly impossible to replicate at a small school like Keyport. They don't come around very often. That's what made this run so special but also what made the loss so difficult to swallow. Thomson and Mitchell chose Keyport when, as with many other star players, wish not to be the big fish in the small pond. That was never really a consideration for them.

"We had options to go to other schools but we talked about it freshman year that we were going to stick to it and we were going to get up to that next level here," Thomson said. "We weren't going to try to join another team, we were going to build one around us and that's what we did. I hope the community keeps supporting these guys. We need it."

"Hopefully we're forever remembered and for the next few years coming they continue the legacy," Mitchell said. "It feels like we changed the culture."

As Recco said, the players had no reason to hang their heads, but it's understandable why they would after coming so close to winning a sectional title. When the sun rises again, the Keyport faithful will continue to hold this team in their hearts, but more importantly, the kids who made it all happen one step at a time.

"It's been a great run," Recco said. "We'll always look back with smiling faces on what this group was able to achieve."



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