The atmosphere felt more like a party than a championship game.
It was a celebration of a community that loves its Panthers basketball.
In front of a rowdy, sold-out crowd at Woodrow Wilson on Tuesday night, the Camden boys' basketball team brushed aside one of its peskiest rivals in a 70-42 win over Haddonfield for the South Jersey Group 2 title.
Camden lost to Haddonfield in heartbreaking fashion in two sectional tournaments before.
That felt like ages ago on Tuesday night after a win that left the crowd literally dancing on the court after the game.
With each Lance Ware slam or Ta’Quan Woodley block, those ghosts from recent years were vanquished and statements were made — again and again — that this team is hungrier than ever for that elusive 12th state title.
"This means a lot, but we still have more to win," said Ware, who led all scorers with 19 points. "This is a big win for us after two years, but we still have more."
After Haddonfield scored the first five points of the game, Camden's full-court pressure defense kicked in and didn't let up, and the game was never close.
Woodley , a 6-foot-7 center, scored seven of his nine points in the first quarter, he also had four rebounds three steals, and three blocks.
"When we started trapping the ball, we started making them play a little bit faster than what they're used to," Ware said. "That's when we were able to force some turnovers. It's just our will to win and our defensive presence on the court."
It was Ware's turn to take center stage in the third quarter. He scored seven in the third, including two emphatic slams.
And, finally, D.J. Wagner, who was a bit cold in the first half, scored 9 of his 15 points in the final period, draining an NBA-length three-pointer and showing his elite ability to get to the basket.
“We can’t simulate what they have. We can work on it in practice, but we don’t have that length or speed, and we were worn down and couldn’t make shots,” said Haddonfield coach Paul Wiedeman, whose second-seeded Bulldawgs were a heavy underdog against top-seeded Camden.
Andrew Gostovich led Haddonfield with 18 points and fellow senior guard Ben Cerrato chipped in 16.
Despite posting back-to-back state championship, this might have been Haddonfield’s most impressive season over its last three. The team finished 25-5 despite graduating most of its varsity team from last year.
“We were predicted to finish third in the conference,” Wiedeman said. "We lost six out of seven players — we put maybe one or two guys on the floor who had varsity experience last year. … But we jelled and we played with a lot of heart. And you can’t take that away from them.”
Still, Tuesday was proof that it's going to take more than heart to take down a Camden team that won its 25th straight game to improve to improve to 29-1.
Most of those wins had the feel of the Panthers putting the New Jersey basketball community on notice. That community has waited 20 years for that other, bigger state championship party.
And the Panthers don't want to stop pleasing that crowd now.
"This is a basketball community," said coach Rick Brunson. "They love Camden basketball. We love to be in this atmosphere. The kids love it, I love it. But the most important thing is that we just have to stay focused and know that the journey isn't over yet."
Haddonfield 8 7 11 16 - 42
Camden 17 17 21 15 - 70
H: Ben Cerrato 16, Andrew Gostovich 18, Tommy Mooney 3, Steve McClane 1, Matt Leming 2, Matt Guveiyian 2.