But in the final five minutes before a raucous, near-capacity crowd at Perth Amboy High School, "a role reversal happened," according to Willingboro coach Jeff Haddock.
In a stunning 49-40 loss to the Central Jersey champions, Willingboro saw its dream of the first state title in the history of the program collapse under the late-game weight of a flurry of turnovers, errant shots, and an absent star point guard.
"We lost our point guard," Haddock said of senior Tyrell Maloney, who sat out the game's final 9 minutes and 41 seconds with a hip pointer.
Maloney had banged his left hip against a Ewing player in the lane during a scramble for a rebound. He bent over in pain but stayed in the game.
Moments later, Maloney took an outlet pass from Mike Owens, tried to run, stopped, and called timeout. He limped to the bench, then to the locker room.
"I tried to run up the court, and I couldn't make it," Maloney said.
Everybody from Willingboro was hurting after the game. Even without Maloney, the Chimeras stretched their lead to nine points early in the fourth quarter. They still were ahead by 36-30 when a missed dunk led to a run-out at the other end and the first and only made jump shot by either team - a three-pointer by Ewing's Dontae Jones.
It was that kind of game. Willingboro didn't make a jumper. Ewing made one. Willingboro committed 27 turnovers. Ewing committed 23.
Both teams relied on defensive pressure and offensive rebounding and took their chances at the foul line (where the Chimeras were just 6 for 17).
Still, the style of this game was nothing new for Willingboro. The Chimeras won 14 in a row, built that impressive record, rose to the top of the rankings, and won the first sectional title in the history of the program with defensive pressure, not offensive artistry.
But with Maloney standing near the end of the bench with an ice bag on his left hip, Willingboro committed 11 turnovers in the fourth quarter. Ewing flipped the script and used steals, offensive rebounds, and more steals to score 18 of the game's final 22 points.
Maloney, the team's leading scorer with a 20.7 average, missed five of the previous seven games with what Haddock called "personal issues."
Maloney didn't start for the second game in a row but appeared to be back in top form. He led all players with 11 points at halftime.
"He was going to finish the game for us," Haddock said.
Instead, Maloney limped to the locker room, and Willingboro's state-title hopes went with him.
Ewing 7 12 6 24 – 49
Willingboro 10 11 11 8 – 40
E: Tyquan Crews 2, Ron Valentine 5, Dontae Jones 10, David Azoroh 18, Isaiah York 14.
W: Ronny Paden 10, Tyrell Maloney 13, Mike Owens 2, Joseph Ricks 8, Maurice Counts 4, Farryn Houston 3.
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