By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
RICHLAND — The St. Augustine Prep basketball team began the final week of the 2021 season by getting an up-close look at Camden guard D.J. Wagner — the son of former Panthers great Dajuan Wagner and grandson of former McDonald’s All-American Milt Wagner, and the No. 1-rated sophomore in the entire country according to ESPN.com.
They Hermits also had about 11 other guys who can flat-out play some basketball up in their collective faces for 32 minutes. Camden came at the host Hermits in waves on Monday night, and eventually the ship sank despite a late comeback effort from Prep. Camden — the top-ranked team in the state according to nj.com — remained unbeaten as Wagner scored a game-high 23 points to lead his squad to a convincing 68-54 victory over No. 14 St. Augustine Prep.
“As soon as we stepped into the gym you could tell, they weren’t looking for respect, they demand respect — you get that vibe that they know where they are and how good they are. They’re cognizant of that,” said St. Augustine Prep senior forward Matt Delaney, and American University commit who scored a team-high 17 points and added 10 rebounds.
Camden came into the game with a 10-0 record and had run most of its opponents right out of the gym, scoring 80 or more points seven times. The closest anyone had gotten to the Panthers was Paul VI, which lost 66-50 on Feb. 23. Against St. Augustine Prep, the Panthers proved they could get up-and-down the court, but also showed the ability to work the ball around in the half court offense. Wagner scored the first 10 points for Camden and quickly showed his arsenal of skills, from long-range threes to driving layups.
“It was a great test,” Wagner said. “We just had to come out and execute and work on what we talked about. We just had to work hard and be prepared.
“Every day, every game, we play against ourselves. That’s a quality team over there, but we worry about what we do. I thought tonight we got a comfortable lead but we didn’t close the game the right way. We just have to keep getting better. When we’re running all the time and beating teams by 30 we can’t really get into our offense, but I thought against a quality team like this we wanted to run some plays in the first half, and we did that. I just thought in the second half we didn’t build on that,” said Camden coach Rick Brunson. “What we teach is the first effort, the second effort and the third effort. Most teams in high school do the first effort. That’s a big thing in practice, the second, third, fourth effort. I thought we did that, but we have to sustain that. I thought we got tired and in the third and fourth quarter it kind of got away from us.”
Camden (11-0) jumped out to a 21-10 lead after one quarter, closing the frame on a buzzer-beating inside bucket from Jerome Brewer, a 6-foot-7 senior forward who recently scored his 1,000th career point. That would be a theme throughout the night, as Brewer finished with 16 points and nine rebounds. His frontcourt mates, Cornelius Robinson and Ta’Quan Woodley, combined for 12 points and 14 rebounds.
“They definitely contributed and stepped up a lot, getting offensive rebounds and getting those extra hustle plays to help put us up,” Wagner said of the Panthers’ big men.
Camden closed out the first quarter on a 13-3 run and in the second quarter four different players nailed 3-pointers to help the Panthers stretch the lead to 38-19 by halftime. In the second half the Hermits (11-2) made a game of it thanks to some big shots from seniors Delaney, John Horner and Keith Palek, getting as close as 11 points, but every time the Hermits hit a big shot, Wagner was there with an answer. In the third quarter, Prep sophomore guard Jack Schleicher nailed a three to cut into a 21-point deficit, but on the very next possession Wagner answered with a three. Later in the third, Xavier Earnest drained a three to pull Prep within 47-32, but Wagner closed the quarter out with a driving layup.
Palek opened the fourth quarter with a three to pull Prep within 14, at 51-37, but just as quickly Wagner drained a three at the other end.
“It was just in the flow of the game and the heat of the moment, coming down and hitting open shots. I saw opportunities and I just took them,” Wagner said.
Delaney never gave up hope that the Hermits could make a late run to close the gap to single digits, but the Panthers simply had too many weapons.
“I really trusted my guys. I never thought we were out of it. We got a little shaky in the second quarter — we got a little selfish and discombobulated — but I give props to my guys coming back in that second half. It could have gone one of two ways. It could have been 40 (point deficit) or it could have been 10. I’m proud of my teammates. We have some young guards who have been stepping up,” said Delaney, a Mantua resident. “Brewer and Woodley, they are both great, and even Robinson coming off the bench, he’s no drop-off. Playing against them it was respectful, it was an honor. Going against them feels great. I have a lot of respect for them.
“(Coach Paul) Rodio has been doing this for 40 years and we’re one of those teams you can never count out,” he added. “Year after year he makes it known that no matter who he has he’s going to coach them the right way and lead them with motivation, and let the guys know we’re never out of a game.
Brunson said that if you want to beat Camden you have to bring the intensity level from start to finish, because the Panthers can just keep throwing fresh legs out there until they wear you down, physically and mentally.
“I tell everybody — when (an opponent) makes their first three, look at their players, look at their bench, and they are jumping around and screaming. But look at 32 minutes, with people coming at you, and coming at you — we’re 10-to-12 deep and we keep coming at you, so you have to keep it up for 32 minutes,” he said. “To me, at this level, I just don’t think a lot of teams can do that for 32 minutes.”
What’s next: Camden travels to Washington Township on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. St. Augustine Prep hosts Hammonton on Friday at 6 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays