It didn’t hit Bryan Antoine until he took his jersey off after the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions state final.
In the locker room at the Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway, Antoine stopped and looked at the blue letters on his Ranney School uniform.
“I realized it was probably the last time I’m going to take off a Ranney jersey,” Antoine said. “The last four years have been unbelievable.”
Antoine and his fellow Ranney seniors in the boys’ basketball program, Scottie Lewis, Ahmadu Sarnor, Alex Klatsky and Chris Autino, ended their careers as the best team in New Jersey on March 17 at Rutgers.
They teamed together to steer Ranney past Bergen Catholic High School, 67-63, in the Tournament of Champions title game.
The victory earned Ranney its first boys’ basketball Tournament of Champions state title in the history of the Tinton Falls school.
In the state polls, Ranney entered the Tournament of Champions final with the No. 1 ranking, while Bergen Catholic came in at No. 2
On March 9, the Panthers also earned the first state group title in program history when they beat Roselle Catholic High School, 56-50, in the NJSIAA Non-Public B championship game.
It was Roselle Catholic that had defeated Ranney last season in the Non-Public B final en route to winning the 2018 Tournament of Champions state title.
Ranney also won the NJSIAA Non-Public B South crown on March 6 with a 54-50 victory over Wildwood Catholic High School.
A week and a half earlier, on Feb. 23, the Panthers claimed the Shore Conference Tournament championship for a second consecutive season when they posted a 70-60 triumph over Manasquan High School.
Ranney had won the school’s first Shore Conference Tournament title last winter.
Antoine and his teammates finished 31-3 this winter. Two of the three losses came to teams outside the Garden State. Ranney’s only setback in New Jersey was to the Gill Saint Bernard’s School, 62-60, in late January.
Gill Saint Bernard’s would even eventually fall to Roselle Catholic in the Non-Public B North state final, 48-44.
Ranney left no doubt that it was the best team in New Jersey this year.
After the Tournament of Champions final on Sunday, Lewis walked into the postgame press conference with a hat on. It had the state’s outline on the front.
“We’ve shown a lot of heart,” Lewis said.
Facing a North Jersey power in Bergen Catholic, the Panthers had a chip on their shoulder. They wanted to prove that a Central Jersey team could win the state title. In the North-South Jersey dichotomy, Central Jersey teams get lost in the middle.
Ranney has been trying to overcome this perception since Antoine and Lewis, two Division 1 recruits, chose the Tinton Falls school in 2015.
“Folks from South Jersey don’t think we’re that good. Then you have a North Jersey contingent that thinks we’re not very good,” said Ranney coach Tahj Holden. “But we’ve been consistently winners, and that showed up in a game like this.”
The Panthers trailed by nine at halftime and by 10 in the third quarter against the school from Oradell in the Tournament of Champions final.
But then, Holden spread the floor and gave the ball to his two best players.
On possession after possession, Antoine and Lewis dribbled by their defenders and got to the rim. They either laid the ball in or earned free throws. The isolation offense sparked a 20-9 surge that gave Ranney a one-point lead going into the fourth period.
But with 15 seconds left in regulation, Ranney and Bergen Catholic were tied.
With Antoine and Lewis blanketed, Sarnor handled the ball for the Panthers on the right wing. He power dribbled by his defender and took a bump to the waist.
The referee blew his whistle. Sarnor walked to the foul line and sank one free throw.
At the other end, a Bergen Catholic player drove and clanged the ball off the backboard. Ranney junior Phillip Wheeler leaped in the air, grabbed the rebound and got fouled.
Wheeler hit his first free throw but missed the second. After the miss, Sarnor soared in and snared the board out of midair.
He dribbled around the three point line, jumped up and screamed to the crowd. He had been fouled with just few ticks left and then sank both free throws.
Moments later, the Panthers stormed the court.
Antoine hugged Holden like a father. The two smiled wide and laughed.
Lewis, who connected for 20 points, and Antoine, who scored 17, combined for 37 points, leading the Panthers like they always do. Wheeler and Sarnor added 14 and 13 points, respectively. Klatsky drilled a huge three pointer in the fourth quarter.
Lewis and Antoine were great. That’s why they are going to the University of Florida and Villanova University, respectively, to play basketball.
Antoine also became the all-time leading scorer in the history of the Shore Conference this winter.
But this was a team victory. It took literally every Panthers player.
“The beauty of our team is that anyone at any moment can make a huge impact,” Holden said. “They are champions.”