By BRIAN CUNNIFFCLAYTON — Sometime in the future, the people associated with the Wildwood High School boys basketball team will realize just how special the final eight days of their 2018-19 season were.
But in the present, there is nothing but searing emotional pain.
Wildwood’s extraordinary, unprecedented run through the South Jersey Group I playoffs ended bitterly as the Warriors gave up a seven-point lead with less than three minutes to play and lost, 64-63, to Clayton in the sectional title game Tuesday.
“It hurts pretty bad,” Wildwood senior Tyler Tomlin said. “We knew we had it. We just got sloppy at the end. It stinks.”
Thanks to another brilliant performance by Tomlin and tremendous scrappiness by the team’s role players, Wildwood held a 59-52 lead with a little more than three minutes to. But a series of turnovers by the Warriors allowed Clayton to burst back and take a one-point lead following a Justin Mills basket after the miss of his own teammate’s free throw.
Dorien DePina then made two foul shots to increase Clayton’s lead to 64-61. Tomlin narrowly missed a left-corner three-point shot, but teammate Seamus Fynes tipped in the missed with 7.3 seconds to go. With Wildwood out of timeouts, Clayton never picked up the ball until two seconds remained and time ran out as the ball was inbounded.
“That was my last (seven) seconds,” Tomlin said. “I’ll never forget those seconds.”
Tomlin, a career 1,000-point scorer who upped his already solid game tenfold in the state playoffs, hit a three-pointer and made a layup on consecutive possessions to give the Warriors their 59-52 lead. But Wildwood turned the ball over numerous times while trying to spread the floor and Clayton capitalized.
“Down the stretch, up seven with three minutes left, we just got a little too sloppy,” Wildwood coach Scott McCracken said. “We were trying to stall while also attacking the basket if the layup was there but we didn’t attack the basket. We had chances to take layups but we tried to pass the ball instead and we turned it over.
“This whole playoff run we did the things we needed to do to close out games but this time we didn’t. … That’s basketball sometimes.”
The loss should do nothing to diminish what Wildwood accomplished this playoff season. The Warriors entered the tournament as a No. 14 seed and beat third-seeded Salem, 11th-seeded Pitman and second-seeded Glassboro to reach their first South Jersey title game since 1980. All three of the victories came on the road.
“Obviously we’re thrilled with the run we had,” McCracken said. “Went went and beat Salem, a three seed, turned around and beat Pitman, an 11 seed, and then we won a great game at Glassboro.
“All along I thought we were better than a 14 seed. We had a hard time closing games and then we seemed to learn from that and we did a great job with it in the playoffs. But then it comes back to haunt us and we don’t close out a game where we’re up seven late.”
Clayton, the No. 8 seed, won its first sectional title since 1981. DePina netted 14 points and Max Cruz added 12 for the Clippers (21-9).
Tomlin, clearly the best player on the floor in all four of Wildwood’s playoff games, scored a game-high 23 points in the loss.
“This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my life, hands down, 100 percent,” Tomlin said. “There’s been nothing like this. I just had so much fun.
“I think we proved a lot of people wrong. Obviously we had a rough start to the season. And then a lot of people counted us out in our first playoff game against Salem. But we uplifted the entire community and the entire school. Everyone was behind us. It was so awesome.”
Karl Brown added 12 points of the bench and Max McGrath finished with 11 for Wildwood (13-17). Will Long, plagued by foul trouble, added just four points but played a tremendous floor game.
“I have a bunch of emotions that I can’t even describe,” Long said. “It stinks to get this far and lose like this. But no one thought we’d go this far. That’s the positive we can take out of this. It was an amazing ride. A total roller coaster. There was nothing like it.”