WILDWOOD (N.J.) - Eastside High School boys basketball coach Kenny Avent refers to his team's development as on-the-job training.
The Tigers feature a plethora of new, but talented faces after capturing last season's NJSIAA Group 3 state title and are learning how to play together on the fly.
Camden Eastside, ranked second in the latest South Jersey Sports Zone Top 15 rankings, improved its record to 3-0 with a 49-39 triumph over No. 10 Middle Township in the Boardwalk Classic William "Chickie" Ludman Memorial Showcase at the Wildwood Convention Center on Tuesday night.
"It's on-the-job training," Avent said. "If we can just get wins while we're still learning how to play, that'll pay dividends down the stretch."
Eastside used a 17-5 run in the first half to establish an eight-point advantage at halftime, and benefited from a productive third quarter by Jahaan Green to etch out a quality victory.
Their pressure in the backcourt tantalized the Panthers and led to offensive opportunities in the open court.
"We had to make adjustments and we did," Avent said. "For the most part, our defensive energy was good. We still want to get better."
"With that type of energy, it allows us to put pressure on teams," Green said. "They generally cough up the ball and we're down the other way getting baskets."
Eastside initially trailed 10-6 after a two-hand slam dunk on a breakaway by Jamir McNeil with 3:10 left in the first quarter and a field goal by Bubba McNeil provided Middle Township with its largest lead of the game.
The Tigers responded with an 11-1 spurt capped by a basket from Rashee Bell following an offensive rebound as part of the 17-5 run to conclude the opening half.
Green scored nine of his team-high 14 points in the third quarter to help establish separation.
The junior's ability to finish through contact at the rim and rotate on the perimeter for open looks helped put together a 13-2 run.
"I think it was the defense," Green said. "Our defensive intensity picked up. We started rebounding and generally I think that was able to give us some momentum into the third and fourth quarter."
Jeremiah Bright scored on a layup to put Eastside up 38-21 with 2:16 left in the third quarter.
The Tigers' 17-point lead was their largest of the contest as Middle Township narrowed the deficit to seven points with less than four minutes left to play.
"We just got to get better," Avent said. "We were up 17, we take a quick shot, they go on like an 8-0 run. We can't have those type of spurts. We got to get better understanding time and score. We got to be able to switch gears. We can't just have one gear - go, go, go, go. Much credit to Middle Township. They never stopped playing."
Bright scored all 12 of his points in the second half.
"We were trying to force a little bit too much in the first half," Bright said. "The first half, they were flat out playing harder than us. Our coach told us that and we all knew that. In the second half, we made sure we came out way more intense. They were playing more scrappy, getting all the 50-50 balls. We made sure that ain't happen again."
Bubba McNeil powered Middle Township with a game-high 17 points. Forward Re'ale Basquine added 10 in the setback.
The Panthers dropped their record to 2-2 with both their losses coming to top-three teams in South Jersey.
"We learned today," Middle Township coach LaMarr Greer said. "I don't consider it losing. We're learning. Camden Eastside and coach Kenny, they're state champions. That's what we want to get to. I see why they're state champions. They're so disciplined."
Camden Eastside improved its record to 3-0 and will play St. Joseph by the Sea (NY) on Wednesday at 4:15 pm.
An effective way for the Tigers to prepare for their state title defense is to participate in high-level showcases and tournaments such as the Boardwalk Classic to prepare for the long haul.
"I've never been here before," Green said. "Some of my teammates haven't either. This is a new experience with high school. AAU we're all around the country, but high school a lot of us haven't been down to tournaments like this. We had to come out strong because being out here for the first time we got to make a statement."