By DAVE O’SULLIVAN

Staff Writer

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Senior point guard Christian Rodgers couldn’t explain it. Sophomore guard Tim Travagline struggled to put words together to sum up what happened Saturday afternoon at Absegami High School in the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament championship game. Even Mainland Regional head coach Dan Williams couldn’t quite tell anyone just how in God’s name his eighth-seeded Mustangs had just won the whole dang thing.

You heard that right. The No. 8 seed. Knocking off No. 1 Egg Harbor Township, No. 4 St. Joseph Academy and No. 2 St. Augustine Prep — all in the span of eight days, from a team that had a less-than-impressive 12-10 record coming into the tournament, and which barely even made it in ahead of the likes of Hammonton and ACIT. The Stangs were expected to be first-round fodder for EHT, one of the top teams in the entire state, when the tournament began on Feb. 18.

But there they were Saturday afternoon, holding up that glass trophy after beating St. Augustine Prep, 58-56, in a game that will be talked about for decades to come. It marked the first time the Mainland boys had ever won the league tournament.

Prep started out hot, jumping out to a 16-6 lead, but then Mainland ripped off a 22-6 run and went into halftime ahead 23-22. The second half went back and forth like kids hopped up on Fun Dip and trying to out-do each other on the see-saw. The game featured a thrilling buzzer beating 3-pointer from Prep sophomore guard Semaj Bethea — his second this week. He hit a half-court shot to beat Holy Spirit in the semifinals, and his off-balanced prayer shot on Saturday sent the game into overtime.

Even before that, Mainland had a shot to ice the game at the free-throw line but continued to miss foul shots in the final two minutes, allowing St. Augustine to hang around long enough to tie it. And even after Cohen Cook — one of four sophomores in Mainland’s starting lineup — hit a pair of free throws with 38 seconds left to put the Stangs up 58-56, Mainland still had to withstand another desperation 3-point attempt from Bethea at the overtime buzzer that rimmed out.

Glory Days photo/Sully

Mainland athletic trainer Pat Dioguardo joked that the finish had stripped a few years off his life. That’s how nerve-wracking the final eight minutes of this game were.

“I’m at a loss for words again,” Rodgers said after the game, incredulously. “A No. 8 seed? I’m just so proud — these guys are my family, man, and I’m just so proud of them. They were a tough team and we knew going into this game that we were going to have to give it our all, and that’s what we did. We made tough shot after tough shot, and even still, at the end, it looked like it wasn’t going to go our way. We couldn’t make a free throw to save anything, then Cohen Cook hits some free throws — and I thought that kid Bethea was going to hit a game-winner again. He hit a three once against Spirit (to beat them) and once against us to send the game into overtime. I thought that was going to be it, but I’m so happy he missed it.”

“It’s crazy, us being so young and getting a win like this so early (in our careers). I can’t wait for the next two years coming up,” Travagline said. “Coach has been talking about us being an underdog story all the time, at every practice. He just said we had to come out and play harder than everybody, and that’s what we did. This is the best feeling ever, it really is.”

“It’s unbelievable. I have to believe that some if it is them being sophomores, they’re not nervous like this is their last chance. Or maybe they just don’t know any better because they didn’t have this tournament last year. I’m not sure, but whatever this is, we’ll take it,” coach Williams said. “How to sum it up? I have no idea. I’m just impressed with the guys, a little bit shocked — I’m a little bit speechless here. I have no idea (how this happened). It goes back to their resiliency and toughness. All those cliches a coach says, ‘fight to end’ and all that, that’s what they did. And that’s what they’ve done most of the season, at least the last four weeks or so.”

Mainland (15-10) led 51-44 with less than three minutes to go after forward Jamie Tyson made a great play, coming up with an offensive rebound and feeding Cook for a bucket in the lane. Cook was an absolute monster in the second half and overtime, racking up 23 of his game-high 26 points.

Glory Days photo/Sully

“Jamie is so good defensively. He had five or six charges. He’s a football player, so he’s a tough kid,” Rodgers said. “And Stephen Ordille, he only averages about three points per game, maybe, but I love him to death and he’s our best defender. I think he’s the best defender in the CAL.

“And Cook is a beast. He’s 6-foot-1 but he plays like he’s 6-7. He can score inside, outside. He’s a great player.”

“He can score from outside, he can score from inside, off the dribble — he will do anything you ask him to do. And he’s very literal, if you say, ‘Cohen, go run through that wall,’ he’ll go run through the wall,” Williams added. “That’s the kind of kid he is, never with a complaint, and it starts with practice. People don’t want to go against him in practice because he’s relentless, and that spills over into the game.”

Despite the seven-point lead, Prep wasn’t out of it. The Hermits (22-3) got a jumper from Elijah Brown to cut it to 51-46, then pulled to within 51-48 on a pair of free throws from Bethea with 1:04 remaining. Both teams missed free throws in the final minute, setting up Bethea’s heroics. He dribbled from half court down the right sideline with time winding down, launched up an off-balanced shot, and sank it to tie the game, 51-51, and send it to overtime.

In the extra period, St. Augustine went ahead 54-51 on a three from Ethan Fox and later led 56-53 after a post-up bucket from Brown. That came with 1:27 left, but the Hermits were held scoreless the rest of the way. Mainland got a traditional 3-point play from Cook with 1:15 to go to tie the game at 56, then he hit the eventual game-winning free throws with 38 ticks left.

Glory Days photo/Sully

Cook finished with three 3-pointers and was 3-for-4 from the line, all of which came in the fourth quarter or overtime, and added three assists. Travagline chipped in 11 points and four assists and Rodgers finished with eight points. Prep put three in double figures, as Brown and Matt Kouser each had 17 while Bethea finished with 16 points.

“The pregame (before the EHT game) was nothing about the whole tournament and what we could do. Before that game it was just the tempo of the game. Against St. Joe’s, same thing, the tempo — don’t let them get out and scoring big. This was the first time we talked about potential outcomes. And even then, we said if we can stay close, if the score is low at halftime, maybe we put (Prep) in a position that, because of their record, they haven’t really played from behind that much. Obviously, I was wrong, because they did a great job of playing from behind and put us in a tough spot,” Williams said. “This is awesome. You have no idea what to expect with younger kids, but they all bought into what we’re doing. It’s worked out, because the only one who really wants to handle the ball is Christian, the only two guys who really love going down low and doing all the dirty work are Jamie and Cook. Then you have Tim being the offensive threat that he is and Stephen relished the role of being the defensive guy on the perimeter. And that had nothing to do with the coaching staff, that was just them taking ownership of those roles.”

Mainland now turns its attention to the South Jersey Group 3 tournament, which begins Tuesday, and the Mustangs are playing with more confidence than they’ve ever had. They believe a sectional title is not at all out of reach despite being a No. 6 seed.

“Our chemistry is at 100 right now,” Rodgers said. “I don’t think anybody can stop us right now if we keep playing together. If we’re hitting our shots, we feel like nobody can beat us. This feels amazing. I don’t really know what to say.”

What’s next: Mainland hosts Westampton Tech on Tuesday in the opening round of the South Jersey Group 3 state playoffs, time TBD.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays