Heart. Valor. Integrity. Grittiness. The Mainland Regional boys basketball team showed all of that this season, especially after losing star senior forward Jake Cool to injury just before the start of the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament. Not many expected the Mustangs to rip off 20 wins this year, and they would have liked to have had two more to make a return trip to the sectional championship game, where they lost to Moorestown a year ago.

But on Wednesday afternoon, Mainland ran into an athletic and talented Cherry Hill West team that jumped out to a huge 24-5 lead to start the game and cruised from there, winning big, 60-30, in the South Jersey Group 3 quarterfinals. The fifth-seeded Lions advance to take on either No. 1 Moorestown or No. 9 Seneca, who battle it out tonight in a quarterfinal matchup in Moorestown.

Jordan Lipford on the inside was simply too much for the Mustangs to handle without the presence of Cook, as Lipford scored 10 points in the opening quarter and finished with a game-high 28. Justin Smith added 13 for the Lions and Tyreke Huff dropped in 10, including a couple of threes, and Hakim Melvin added nine. Fourth-seeded Mainland was led by guard Tony Tamanini, who hit four 3-pointers to finished with 12 points. Mainland finished the year 20-8 and a Cape-Atlantic League National Conference title with an 11-1 record.

“I didn’t know what to expect from this team. I knew Jake was a fantastic athlete and Ja’Quan (Mace) was a guy coming back who could really defend, and Luke (Mazur) was a guy who could really light it up. We saw that in the summer league where he had a couple games that were eye-popping,” said Mainland coach Dan Williams. “But with the other teams in our conference, there’s a lot of luck involved, a bounce of the ball here or a call there. Those battles with Ocean City, Holy Spirit and Cedar Creek could have gone the other way in almost every game, but we’ll take it.”

“After that loss at Moorestown (last year), I don’t think most people believed that we could get back to another 20-win season, and I’m sure a lot of people at Mainland didn’t believe that, either,” said Mazur, one of several seniors in Mainland’s starting lineup. “But we got in the gym all summer. It was all year. We got right back in the gym after that game, we got back at it and stepped up this program. When we lost Jake we knew it was going to be tough, but this team is so resilient. I’m proud of them all.”

Cherry Hill West was dominating on the inside early and jumped out to a 9-5 lead, then Huff nailed a 3-pointer late in the first quarter to make it 12-5, forcing Mainland to call a timeout. But the run didn’t end. The Lions went on a 15-0 spurt to take a 24-5 lead. However, the Mustangs switched things up defensively, started getting turnovers, and closed out the first half on a 14-4 run to get within 28-19 at the break.

“West is a really tough team, they have some nice scorers and great athletes. We had a tough time rebounding. In the beginning they got out to a big lead so we went into a diamond press and started to kick it up a little bit, we got a few layups and Tony was hitting threes. We thought we had a chance, but in the end, it was just too tough,” said Mazur, a Widener University recruit. “It was a great season, it had to come to an end, but I’m proud of the season we had.”

Lipford had a driving layup and an assist in the first minute of the third quarter to give West a 33-19 lead, and a few minutes later scored two straight buckets to push the lead to 37-21. Huff followed with a three to make it 40-21, effectively putting the game on ice late in the third quarter.

“Our student section is one of the best I’ve seen in South Jersey, I love them. We get great support from our school, all the fans — I’m going to miss it all. It’s awesome,” Mazur said. “I’m excited for the days ahead at Widener, but I’ll never forget these days and the relationships with these guys in the locker room. I’m glad about my four years at Mainland and I know the other guys are, too. I’m excited for the better days ahead (for this program).”

“We preach this in the summer when the alumni come back — and you’re seeing John Evans and myself still coaching together, having played four years at Mainland together — the sting of losing and having your high school basketball career over, that hurts. But the best part of this whole thing, and the best takeaway, is the relationships that are built. In a week, a month, and certainly a couple years from now, when they come back and we’re all laughing — it’s going to be all about that. We’ll be laughing about this game and about how Cherry Hill West dusted us, but we’ll be enjoying it and doing it together. That’s the thing, if they can take away some positive relationships from being in our program, for me, that’s what this whole program is about,” Williams said. “I know some programs may have different goals. Their goal is to win state titles and be in the Tournament of Champions and all that — we’re not at that level yet — but even if we were, for me it’s about the relationships. If you’re willing to do all the things in the offseason that put you in a position to compete during the season, by the time you’re a junior or senior this is a program you can play in. We’re not a superstar driven team.”

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