But in the fourth quarter, Camden's dreams of a state title that would rekindle the glory of South Jersey's most fabled program dissolved in a flurry of hurried shots and turnovers.
Newark Tech outscored Camden, 19-8, in the fourth quarter and emerged with a 48-44 victory at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
"We were right there," said first-year Camden coach John Valore, who was seeking the first state title in his 37-year career. "We didn't show the patience necessary to win the basketball game in the fourth quarter."
Headen scored 12 points and sophomore guard Brad Hawkins 14 for Camden (22-10). Senior forward Jamil Maddred collected 12 rebounds for the Panthers.
The loss was Camden's fifth in a row in state finals (2001, 2005, 2009, 2013 and 2014). The Panthers won their last title in 2000, when current assistant coaches Dajuan Wagner and Arthur Barclay led the team to the Tournament of Champions title.
"We fell short again," said Headen, whose eyes were red with tears in the interview room.
Camden played its best basketball in March, beating top-ranked and 28-0 Haddonfield in the South Jersey Group 2 semifinals and overwhelming Central Jersey champion Matawan in the state semifinals.
The Panthers appeared in control of a ragged game late in the third quarter on Sunday. Despite a foul-filled, stop-and-go pace that seemed to frustrate both teams, Camden forged in front as Headen buried a three-point jumper, Nasir Money scored on putback, and Rasool Hinson converted a traditional three-point play.
"We were feeling it," Headen said.
Newark Tech (20-11), the defending state champion, took control of the game in the final four minutes. The Terriers tied the game at 44-44 on Mustafa Lawrence's three-point jumper at the 3:30 mark, then took the lead at 46-44 on Jordan Zagadov's layup off a Lawrence feed at 1:40.
Hawkins scored eight of his 14 points in the fourth quarter. His two free throws at the 1:20 mark tied the score at 46-46.
But Lawrence scored on a drive, Camden missed a jumper, and Lawrence added another free throw. After another miss, Camden was hit with an intentional foul at the 0:24 mark, and the Newark Tech was able to run out the clock.
"I thought we were there," Valore said. "It was an accumulation of negative things in the fourth quarter."
Camden 11 13 12 8 - 44
Newark Tech 9 10 10 19 - 48
C: Jamil Maddred 5, Jamal Holloway 5, Brad Hawkins 14, Tavaris Headen 12, Rasool Hinson 6, Nasir Money 2.
NT: Jordan Zagadov 8, Tyree Sykes 2, Mustafa Lawrence 13, R.J. Cole 7, Al-Tariq Halsey 9, C.J. Webb 6, Jerod Page 2, Dino Boyd 1.