By Lauree Padgett. Exclusive to Haddonfield[dot]Today
The last day of February, 2/28, began that time of year for New Jersey high school hoops when every game can be the last one of the season. You win, you advance; you lose, you’re done. So, for teams and fans alike, it’s an adrenalin-filled few weeks when you can’t wait for game time and yet you have a knot in your stomach.
As the #3 seed in South Jersey Group 2, the Dawgs would be playing host to their opponents for at least the first and second rounds, as the way the brackets work, they would be going up against lower-seeded teams. On 2/28, the Lower Cape May squad, aka the Caper Tigers (which makes a lot more sense than what I thought I was hearing our play-by-play announcer Mark Hershberger saying: the Paper Tigers), seeded 14 (out of 16) came to play against the Dawgs. And let’s just say it wasn’t a caper for Lower Cape May.
Senior Matt Leming got the offense “swooshing” with a 3 with just less than a minute gone in the first quarter. A steal by senior Tom Mooney that turned into a basket made it 5–0. Lower Cape May got on the board with 2 at the 5:18 mark, but then the Dawgs went on a 7–0 run, with Leming and Mooney hitting 2’s and then Leming nailing another 3. With 2 minutes and change left in the quarter, the Dawgs were up by 10, 12–2. After the Capers got another bucket, Mooney drove up and in again and got fouled. His foul shot made it 15–4 with 1.15 on the clock.
After both teams turned the ball over, Lower Cape May got their third basket of the night, and so did Mooney, just ahead of the buzzer. Going into the second quarter, the Dawgs were sporting a 11-point, 17–6, lead.
Quarter 2 was more of the same. Mooney got another pair of 2’s; Leming knocked down another 3. Senior Carson Wolff and junior Teddy Bond got into the game and contributed to the scoring, with Wolff driving in for a basket and Bond getting 2 from the foul line and one from behind the arc. While adding 14 to their tally, the Dawgs held the Caper Tigers to 6 again, so at the half, the Dawgs were now cruising along, up by 19, 31–12.
In the second half, the Dawgs offense slowed a bit, but defensively, they continued to keep the Caper Tigers from doing much damage. When the final buzzer sounded, the Dawgs had sent Lower Cape May back to the shore for the winter, winning by 18, 54–26. Mooney and Leming combined for 22 and 17, respectively, meaning they outscored the Caper Tigers on their own by 13 points.
Next up were the Panthers (and why are there so many teams with “panthers” as their nicknames?) of Middle Township. Over the decades I have been going to Haddonfield games (back when the team’s uni bottoms were short and they were the Haddons, then the Dogs), Middle Township has ended more than one playoff run for the Red and Black, so I always have a bit of trepidation when the two teams have to face each other. The Panthers play in the Cape-Atlantic League, and when I checked their schedule, I saw that they had a similar record in and out of their division; 17–7 overall to Haddonfield’s 18–9 record and 14–3 in the league, compared to Haddonfield’s 12–3 Colonial Conference record. Both teams had also experienced a so-so last few weeks. I therefore concluded that this might be another down-to-the-wire Haddonfield–Middle Township matchup.
In this contest, the Panthers got off to a 3–0 start after the Dawgs failed to score on two chances during their first possession. However, after neither team scored in their next trips up and down the court, with Leming getting the defensive board for Haddonfield, Mooney went up and in for 2 and got fouled. His foul shot tied the game at 3 with 5:27 on the clock. Senior Dante Del Duca’s pickoff lead to another Mooney basket on a hard drive in the paint, putting the Dawgs ahead by 2, 5–3 with just under 5 minutes to go in the first quarter.
A few plays later at the 3:54 mark, Middle Township retook the lead with another 3. The lead flipped back to Haddonfield about 70 seconds later on a feed from Leming to senior Matthew Guveiyian, who also drove hard to the basket. At the other end, Guveiyian got knocked down while guarding the net, but was rewarded for his efforts by causing a Middle Township turnover. After sophomore Daire Roddy pulled down an offensive board, Mooney got his third field goal of the quarter, putting the Dawgs up by 3, 9–6, with 1:44 to go. As often happens when a team tries to hold onto the ball to get off a quarter-ending shot, the Panthers lost the ball, leaving Leming, who retrieved it, with no other choice but to make a half-court lunge ahead of the buzzer.
Guveiyian picked up where Mooney, who put 7 on the board in the first quarter, left off. He accounted for 7 of the 9 points the Dawgs put up on the board, with Leming adding 2 from the foul line. Those shots came about after a Middle Township player was assessed a technical foul after scoring a basket and taunting the Dawgs about the fete. Naturally, having the choice of who to put on the line, Dawg coach Paul Wiedeman gave the job to Leming, as he is a very reliable foul shooter. Leming completed his assignment with flying colors, or at least, sinking baskets. At that point, the Dawgs were up 15–1 with 1:41 until the half.
After a ball went out of bounds off Haddonfield, Middle Township took a timeout. Play resumed with 1:16 on the clock. While running the clock down yet again to try for another last-second shot, the Panthers nearly turned the ball over. After a missed shot, the Panthers picked up a foul with 5.8 seconds left. The Dawgs inbounded under the Panther basket and were having a bit of trouble getting the ball over the midcourt line. With about a second on the clock, Guveiyian, with his feet planted somewhere between the Panther foul line and the midcourt line, let the ball fly. It dropped in, nothing but net, to give the Dawgs an 18–11 edge as the half ended. Needless to say, Dawg fans, after they collectively picked their jaws up off the bottom of the bleachers, started screaming their heads off.
In the 2nd half, the Dawgs really began to stymie the Panthers, who just kept passing and passing the ball on the perimeter practically every possession, as they often could not find a path into the paint and were forced to take outside shots. Haddonfield’s 1973 state championship MVP and courtside analyst Tom Betley commented after the game that the experience of Haddonfield, which can put five seniors on the floor at one time, was too much for a Panthers’ team largely made up of underclassmen.
Along with the stifling defense, the Dawgs also started to heat up offensively. Roddy made it 20–11 at the 7:10 mark. The Panthers answered with a 3,which would be their only basket of the quarter, to get to within 6, 20–14, about 20 seconds later. Back-to-back 3’s by the Matts, first by Guveiyian (he was a little closer to the basket this time), then Leming, gave the Dawgs their biggest lead, 26–14, with 3:44 on the clock, causing Middle Township to call a timeout. That did not help much. Mooney got his 4th bucket of the game, and in the Dawgs’ next possession, he was fouled in the act of shooting and sent both shots into the net to make it 30–14 with 2:09 left in the quarter. The quarter ended with Del Duca launching back-to-back 3’s, giving the Dawgs a 24-point, 36–14, advantage going into the last quarter.
In the 4th, the Dawgs’ offense slowed to more of a trot than a race. Four seniors, Sean Beane, Christian Raymond, Evan Rohlfing, and Jon Bucci, got some action. The Panthers also started getting some more shots into the basket, but it was all for naught. When the buzzer sounded, the Dawgs had won by 19 points, 44–25. Guveiyian finished with 16, and Mooney added 11.
This got the Dawgs to 19–9 overall and to the Group 2 semi-finals. The question was, who would they be going up against? As it turned out, their Colonial rival Sterling eked out a 1-point, 54–53, victory over Cinnaminson. That meant the Dawgs would be taking on the Silver Knights for the third time this season, and, since the Silver Knights had been seeded #2, the Dawgs would have to face Sterling on their home court. In chatting with assistant and JV coach Anthony Parenti after the Panthers game, we both were of the mind that beating a team three straight times is never easy. Plus, we both agreed that in their first two meetings, the Dawgs could have won both games. Parenti told me, “If we play this kind of defense, I like our chances.”
Friday’s game was scheduled for 5:30. My travel buddy and I decided we should leave by 4:15, not just to give us extra time due to rush hour traffic, but because a large crowd was expected at the Sterling gymnasium. A basketball mom actually checked in with me Friday afternoon to make sure I had a ticket, as she had gotten word the game was sold out. Luckily for me, my travel buddy had secured a ticket for me when securing his own. When we arrived at Sterling, the parking area along the walkway to the gym entrance barely had any cars in it. When we got inside, the gym seemed closer to empty than full. Where was everybody? Nick DePersia (2015), now an assistant boys basketball coach at Triton (twin bro Rob is now an assistant for the Div. 1 Fordham Rams men’s team), had been at the Middle Township game. After he arrived at Sterling, Nick was wondering the same thing, as he hadn’t expected to walk right in and get a ticket. “Remember the lines at Camden games?” he asked. We figured it was just that we had gotten to the high school extra early, but in actuality, even by 5:30, it would be pressing it to say the gym was crowded.
Speaking of former Dawgs, Andrew Gostovich, a crucial component of the Dawgs’ 2020 Colonial Conference championship team, is now playing for the Red Devils of Dickinson. Given an unexpected 3 days of remote learning last week, he got the OK from parents Theresa and Steve to come home so he could go cheer on the Dawgs Wednesday and Friday. It was nice to see the three Gostoviches both nights as well. A bit into the game, Matt Smart (2016) said hello to me as he made his way into the bleachers. It’s always great to see Dawg alums coming out to games, especially during the playoffs.
Those in attendance and those who watched on Sterling’s live stream saw a game that was close and tense for 4 quarters. (One of the announcers on the live stream said, “This has basically been a tie game for 4 quarters.” I confess to knowing this because I wanted to watch the game again and did so on Saturday night. If you missed it or also want a replay, go to Sterling’s YouTube channel, or click on this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNUHv5DkTTs. Just note that the stream starts with the warmups, so you have to fast-forward about 20 minutes for the game to begin.) Another confession: As I was getting my stat- and game-keeping paraphernalia out of my red-and-black backpack, I realized that instead of being a brand-new one, the steno pad on which I scribble the game play-by-play was one from a few years back and only had one blank side. The day before when I had gone into the bag where I keep extra pens, scorebooks, and pads, I hadn’t noticed that of the two steno pads inside, one was blank and one wasn’t. As I was contemplating what to do and eyeing the signs taped to the bleachers a few rows below me reserving them for the Haddonfield team, I did a quick inventory. I had the team roster taped to the inside back of my scorebook, and over it, taped only at two corners, I had the schedule, which was about a page and a half long. I decided those blank sides would get me through the game without me needing to “borrow” the signs. And they did, with about an inch to spare.
In Haddonfield’s first two games versus Sterling, the team had been in a position to win. In the home game on January 6, the Dawgs went into the 4th up by 3, 30–27, and ended up losing by the same amount, 40–43. In the more recent game at Sterling on February 10, the Dawgs had been up 15–2 after 8 minutes and were ahead by 8, 18–10, at the half. That game, the team just shut down offensively and only scored 7 second-half points, losing by 18, 25–43. The Dawgs, their coaches, and their fans were looking for a different outcome. Would the third time be the charm? It would take all 32 minutes of the game to find out.
The tipoff went to Sterling. Thirteen seconds later, Guveiyian stole the ball but Sterling returned the favor about 13 seconds later. Guveiyian created another steal at the 6:53 mark. Mooney got fouled trying to score and made 1–2 from the line to put the first point of the game on the board. Sterling answered with a 3 to go up by 2, 3–1, with 6:24 on the clock.
After the ball went out of bounds off the Silver Knights, the Dawgs failed to score and then had the ball go out of bounds off them. Both teams, who were looking a bit tight, turned the ball over again on their next possessions. Another Haddonfield steal came at the 4:22 mark but the Dawgs could not take advantage of it. After the Dawgs got called for their first (non-shooting) foul, Sterling was again kept from getting the ball into the basket. Del Duca got the defensive board and a 3 attempt from Guveiyian, which looked good, went halfway down and came back out.
Sterling still couldn’t get a basket, and after pulling down the defensive rebound, Mooney did his trademark drive down the court and went up and in for 2. His foul shot put the Dawgs back out in front 4–3 with 2:09 left in the first. A combination of good defense by Haddonfield and unsuccessful shooting by Sterling kept the Dawgs out in front. Del Duca grabbed the rebound and his shot also then went in and out. Guveiyian’s hustle for the ball caused a jump ball and gave possession back to the Dawgs with 1:23 on the clock. The Dawgs’ second shot of that possession did not drop.
At the Sterling basket, one of their shooters was left wide open and hit a 3, giving Sterling back the lead, 6–4, with 1:02 remaining. The Dawgs were running down the clock, looking for a good scoring op. The shot made with 38.3 seconds left did not go in, but Del Duca stole it back, passing it to Mooney. He was fouled again while shooting. He made both foul shots to tie the game at 6, which is how the first quarter ended.
It was hard to believe, but there was less scoring in the second 8 minutes than in the first 8. Neither team scored for more than 4 minutes. That doesn’t mean the Knights and the Dawgs weren’t going after rebounds, diving for loose balls or stealing them, and trying to open up scoring lanes in the paint or taking shots from further back. The balls weren’t dropping, and that was in part due to how well both were guarding their opponent’s ball movements.
With 3:36 to go until the half, Sterling found a way up and in to take a 2-point, 8–6, lead. At the Dawgs’ end, Sterling stole the ball and was fouled, but neither shot went in from the line. Then came more rebounds, more missed shots, more balls going out of bounds, and more travel calls. (There were more moving violations assessed in this game than I can remember in a while, but I think that’s because both teams were often playing stall ball while trying to break the other’s press.)
Another shooting foul was called against Haddonfield with 1:11 left in the half. This time, Sterling made 1–2 to push the lead to 3, 9–6. The second shot missed, and Guveiyian got the rebound. At the other end, Mooney, finding no opening, passed the ball back out to Del Duca, who was behind the arc. His shot found the net, and with 53 seconds to go, Haddonfield’s first basket of the 2nd brought the game even at 9. As long as it had taken between baskets for most of the quarter, Sterling almost immediately answered with a 3 with 21.3 seconds on the clock. Haddonfield’s last shot ahead of the buzzer did not go it the net. As the teams headed for their locker rooms, it was a one-possession game with Sterling on top 12–9.
Haddonfield inbounded the ball to start the third quarter. Leming did not score, perhaps because he was knocked to the ground. However, no foul was called. After good “D” by Guveiyian and a blocked shot by Del Duca, Leming got the rebound. A pickoff by Sterling was followed by a pickoff by Mooney.
Then with 6:57, an interesting skirmish occurred on the court at the Dawgs’ end. Even after rewatching this a few times on the Sterling feed, I’m not sure exactly what transpired, but it revolved around Del Duca and a Silver Knight both going after a rebound. Maybe some words were exchanged, but another Sterling player then stepped into the mix and pushed Del Duca. At first, it looked as if that Sterling player was being assessed a technical foul. But then Del Duca, for reasons unknown to me, also got a technical foul, which made the whole ado a wash. That resulted in a chorus of boos going up from the Dawg fans.
In a bit of irony, Sterling lost the ball off a steal by, yes, Del Duca, who my travel buddy labeled a “ball magnet,” as the whole game, he always seemed to be where the ball was on the court. Sterling was called for a foul and the Dawgs remained scoreless. A second-chance shot off an offensive board gave the Silver Knights a 5-point, 14–9, lead with 5:53 on the clock. The Dawgs really needed a score. After Leming got an offensive board and Sterling got its 4th foul of the half, Leming got that much needed basket off a feed from Guveiyian to make it 14–11, Sterling, with 5:13 on the clock.
The Silver Knights did not score, but the Dawgs lost the ball on an errant pass. Second verse, same as the first: Sterling did not score, and neither did Haddonfield. With 3:45 on the clock, Guveiyian grabbed hold of a loose ball. After a missed shot, Roddy got a big offensive board because it resulted in a 3 from Guveiyian to tie the game at 14 with 3:01 left in the quarter. A timeout from the Sterling coach earned a “Talk it over” from the Haddonfield student section, who had been going head-to-head all night with the Sterling student section. That matchup was pretty much a dead heat as well. Sterling had two chances to score after inbounding the ball, but neither shot went in the net. Del Duca got the board off the second missed shot and passed it to Mooney, who drove into the paint and scored, putting the Dawgs in front for the first time since the first quarter, 16–14, with 2 minutes and change left.
Good D, including a combo blocked shot by the Matts, kept Sterling from scoring. Under the Dawg basket, Guveiyian pulled down an offensive board and fought hard to go up and in. His basket made it 18–14, Dawgs, with 1:17 to go. Sterling shushed the Haddonfield fans in short order, however, by driving in for 2, then stealing the ball and scoring again, all within 10 seconds. On the second basket, Sterling was fouled. The foul shot put the Silver Knights back on top by 1, 19–18. It looked as if Mooney was going to get a chance on the foul line with 15.4 to go, but the refs called the foul non-shooting, which earned another round of hearty boos from the Dawg contingent. The quarter ended with the score still 19–18 in favor of the Silver Knights.
When the 4th quarter started, everyone in the gym knew in 8 minutes, one team’s season would be over. Haddonfield inbounded, with Roddy passing it into Mooney. A missed shot gave the ball back to Sterling, who scored to go up by 3, 21–18, with 6:44 remaining in the game. That is, until Del Duca launched a 3 that found the net to tie it at 21 at the 6:27 mark. That gave the team a boost as well as the fans, who had been getting a bit antsy in the stands, since Sterling had scored the last three baskets before the Del Duca trey.
The Dawgs held the Knights scoreless their next possession. After the Dawgs missed a shot and Del Duca got the offensive rebound, Sterling called a 30-second timeout with 5:45 to go. Wolff inbounded the ball, Del Duca got another board, and Leming hit a 3 as Haddonfield regained the lead, 24–21, with 5:24 showing on the board. Dawg fans were ecstatic, not knowing his 3 would be the last points the Dawgs scored for more than 4 minutes …
At the other end, what clearly did not look like a foul in the act of shooting was deemed one by the refs, putting Sterling on the line. Both shots were good, making it a 1-point game again, with the Dawgs still on top, 24–23, with 4:52 to go. A traveling call went against Guveiyian, even though it looked like he was tripped. A ball went out of bounds off Haddonfield at the 4:01 mark, and 30 seconds later, Sterling retook the lead, scoring a 2 off an offensive rebound.
The Dawgs’ shot did not go in. At the other end, two Sterling attempts failed. Leming got the board and a shot by Mooney rolled out instead of in. It was still 25–24, Sterling, and now the clock had ticked down to 2:11. Sterling kept passing the ball, looking for an opening that the Dawgs would not give them. That defense forced a loose ball, and I think four out of the five Dawgs on the court dove for the ball. Wolff came up with it. The clock was now down to 1:33.
Haddonfield was charged with an offensive foul with 1:24 left in the game. Sterling called a timeout. Off the inbounds, the ball magnet, aka Del Duca, deflected the ball and passed it to Mooney. The Dawgs whittled seconds off the clock. At the 47.1 mark, a shot went up and did not drop. The Silver Knights got the rebound. As they began to move the ball up the court, Leming, who had already passed the midcourt line, doubled back to help with the press. Leaping up, he was able to tip and then snatch the ball with 40.4 seconds left in the game. A few seconds later, with 36.9 on the clock, a timeout was called by Haddonfield.
After the inbounds, the Dawgs worked the ball to set up a play. With 22.4 on the clock, Mooney drove in the lane but was unable to get the ball to drop. Guveiyian immediately grabbed the rebound and fought to go back up and in. His shot did not drop, but he was fouled. With 18.5 seconds left in the game, Guveiyian stepped to the line. He took a deep breath and released the ball. It dropped in. The game was tied at 25. Sterling, hoping to rattle Guveiyian and to set a play up off either the rebound or the inbound, called a timeout. Guveiyian took the ball again, with his four teammates behind, rather than alongside him, and made his second shot. It went in. The Dawgs were now up by 1, 26–25.
At half-court with 14.4 seconds left in the game, Sterling called another timeout. The scoreboard showed that Haddonfield had two fouls to give before it would be a 1+1 opportunity from the foul line. Del Duca made that first foul with 10.2 seconds remaining. Leming was charged with the second with the clock down to 7.1 seconds. (I will interject here that in watching the stream last night, I wasn’t totally sure if Leming committed a foul or if Sterling used its last timeout.) Sterling maneuvered for the final shot. It was a drive to the basket. Mooney used his whole body to block it. In the dive for the ball, Guveiyian got to it first, got it in both hands, and hugged it to him. The buzzer sounded. Unlike their first two matchups, the Dawgs had stayed in the game for 4 quarters and had prevailed. They would advance to the South Jersey Group 2 championship game on Monday and prove that it really is hard to beat a team three times in one season.
In this extremely low-scoring game, no one on the Dawgs hit double digits. But every point mattered. Mooney, who accounted for all 6 of the Dawgs’ first quarter points, finished with 8 and added four steals. Guveiyian wound up with 7 points and 9 rebounds. Del Duca had 6 points off 2 3’s to go with 6 rebounds. Leming had 5 points and started what was the most crucial juncture of the game, as he took Sterling by surprise, re-crossing midcourt to help his teammates apply pressure, and causing the turnover on the steal, the shot attempt by Mooney, the rebound by Guveiyian, and the foul by Sterling the put Guveiyian on the line.
As devastating as the final seconds were for the Sterling players and their fans, the staff showed great sportsmanship, allowing the Dawgs to pose for a group shot under the scoreboard that was still on and reflecting the game’s outcome. One staff member even went over to the reporter who was still asking Guveiyian questions after the one interviewing Mooney had finished so Matthew could join his mates in the group photo.
I reached out to Guveiyian today to ask him about those final few minutes and his foul shots. He said the players were calm and knew they could work it to secure the win, noting, ‘We gave it our all.” As for the foul shots, he told me, “Oh my God. I knew these were the two biggest shots of my career.” But he forced himself to calm down and relax to get in the right mindset. Once the first shot went in, he had a sigh of relief. The timeout by Sterling was helpful rather than adding to the pressure. “I was able to collect myself” before the second shot attempt. He called Mooney’s block “huge,” as it allowed him to grab the ball and hold onto it.
The win against Sterling accomplished two things. It gave the Dawgs 20 wins for the season, something that looked inevitable midway through February and then began looking doubtful by the end of February. It also provided them with some redemption over their Colonial rival who had gotten the best of them in two games that Haddonfield had the chance to win. Well done, Dawgs!!
Tonight, the Dawgs will play yet another set of Panthers, those representing Camden High School. Ranked number 1 in the state, Camden has only lost twice all year—to out-of-state schools. In the playoffs, the team has won its three games by 54, 34, and 40 points, respectively. Game time is 7 p.m., but tickets must be procured in advance online. I am not sure if any remain, but you can check in with the Haddonfield athletic department to find out. No matter what the odds, you can bet the Dawgs will not go down without a fight. And with a team that doesn’t give up, you just never know what can happen.