When Garry Simmons missed Camden High's first basketball game this season against Cherry Hill West, rumors started to fly.
Was he hurt? Was he suspended?
It was the latter. And as school violations go, his fault was rather minor.
"I didn't wear the right uniform to school," he said sheepishly. "On the days we have a game, we're allowed to wear part of our game uniform to school, but we still have to wear part of our school uniform. I wasn't wearing the right things, so I had to sit out a game. Our teachers are very strict about a lot of things, and that's one of them."
Unfortunately for Camden Catholic yesterday, Simmons had the right attire at school, and thus was on the court for the game between the top teams in the Olympic National Conference. Simmons scored 20 points to lead the visiting Panthers (2-0) to a 59-51 win over the Irish (3-1).
"We wanted to apply as much pressure as we could," said Simmons, a 6-2 senior. "They are a lot bigger than us, and we thought that they'd want to slow things down, so we just tried to pressure the ball. That way, even if they beat the pressure, they would take a quick shot and if they miss, that benefits our offense so we can get the ball and get out and run."
Early on, though, that didn't happen. Catholic was easily able to solve Camden's extended zone, to the tune of seven layups in the first quarter as the Irish took a 14-7 lead.
Camden switched it up in the second quarter, going man-to-man and applying some full-court pressure. And it worked like a charm.
A three-pointer by Camden Catholic's Dan D'Orazio on the first possession of the second quarter gave Catholic its biggest lead at 17-7. That's when Camden shifted gears.
Simmons followed his own miss, then Vince Walls, who finished with a game-high 21 points, nailed a trey. Aaron Walton (14 points) sliced in for a layup and Walls nailed another three-pointer from the top of the key to tie the game, 17-17, less than 3 minutes into the quarter.
"The key to this game was our defense," said Walton, who threw around his 6-2 frame all day against an Irish frontline that has three players 6-6. "They're so much bigger than us. And if we don't rebound, we can't get into our game, which is to run. When we got out and pressed, it seemed to confuse them a little bit. And when that happened, we got some turnovers, got out and ran a little more, and then we were able to turn it around."
After Catholic took a 21-17 lead on a follow by Tim Crawford (15 points), the Panthers scored eight of the last 10 points of the half to take a 25-23 lead.
Catholic never led again. The Irish committed just two turnovers in the first half, but 13 in the second.
Simmons, Walls and Walton scored 32 of their team's 34 second-half points to ensure the win.
And a big win it was. Simmons is the only senior who sees significant time. And playing at Camden Catholic, against a team that is always so well-coached, will give Camden a real boost of confidence, Simmons said.
"They are real difficult to play against," he said. "They have great coaches who prepare them well for games. So we have to be prepared for that. We have to be able to run off picks all day and we have to be strong with the ball.
"We came into this game trying to prove ourselves. We're young and we're small. But guys like Vince and Germir [Pitts], they gain confidence in games like this. To come into this gym, against such a quality team and be able to get behind, then come back and win the game is really going to make us stronger down the stretch."
As it will for Camden Catholic, according to coach Jim Crawford.
"This one can only help us down the road," said Crawford, who has 587 career wins. "Despite being smaller than us, they did a good job defensively down low. They held Tyler [DeLeece] to 1-of-11 shooting. And that's not him. He doesn't miss in practice.
"But we'll use this game as a learning tool." *