CAMDEN - Camden junior DJ Wagner found himself headed to the bench with a bloody nose and blood-stained jersey as his team trailed late in the third quarter of their season opener.
The Panthers, who trailed by as much as nine points five different times, were hanging on by a thread and in need of its leader as the sand in the hourglass began to wither away.
“I must have bumped into somebody and hit my nose, Wagner said. “It just started bleeding.”
After a few possessions, the consensus No. 1-ranked player nationally in the class of 2023 returned in a number 43 jersey to provide the presence that was needed.
Wagner finished with a game-high 25 points as Camden squeezed past Roselle Catholic, 67-64, in the GEICO ESPN High School Basketball Showcase on Friday night.
“We just had to lock in,” Wagner said. “Just forget about everything else and lock in.”
The Panthers trailed the entire contest until 7-foot center Aaron Bradshaw sank a jumper from the elbow to give his team a 54-52 advantage with less than four and a half minutes left to play. Camden never trailed again.
“It wasn’t really my shot,” Bradshaw said. “I felt like it was more of ‘our’ shot. I love these guys. They encourage me a lot. It felt great playing with my brothers. It was extraordinary (and) I really felt like I belong.”
Bradshaw and point guard Cian Medley were pivotal down the stretch. Bradshaw scored seven of his nine points in the second half. Medley finished the contest with 12 points and drilled a 3-pointer to give the Panthers a 57-54 lead following Bradshaw’s crucial bucket. The junior also went 5-for-6 from the free throw line on a night in which the Panthers shot just over 41% from the charity stripe.
Desear Haskins also added 10 points in the win.
“They definitely played great,” Wagner said. “I feel like everyone played great. Especially in the second half everybody stepped up. (Bradshaw and Medley) definitely helped out a lot.”
Ranney transfer Elijah Perkins also made his debut in the purple and gold. Perkins recorded a pair of dunks — the latter of the two being a massive offensive put-back that sent the crowd into a frenzy — and provided the Panthers with a much needed spark.
“I didn’t even think it was gonna happen. I just jumped and I dunked it,” Perkins said. “The crowd started going crazy.”
The moment proved to swing the momentum into Camden’s favor and helped offset a sluggish start. The tension of Opening Night was evident early on.
“I’d say it’s excitement and nervousness,” Perkins said. “It was our first game in our new home gym. Even for me it was my first game playing with Camden. After we got the jitters out, we were just getting to it and playing Camden basketball.”
The Panthers were plagued by missed opportunities early on and trailed 11-2 early in the first quarter. The shooting struggles continued as Camden finished the contest 12-for-29 from the free throw line.
“We didn’t compete in the first half,” Camden coach Rick Brunson said. “We didn’t play well, we didn’t shoot the ball well. They played harder. We met our match (and) I thought they out worked us. Fourth quarter a couple things went our way and we stole the win.”
As Perkins noted, Friday’s contest marked the first time Camden hosted a game at its own campus on Park Boulevard in four years. Community members swarmed the new and improved Clarence Turner Gymnasium in support of the Panthers as they etched out their 39th consecutive victory.
“We got the best fans in the world,” Wagner said. “They showed that tonight.”
As for Bradshaw, the No. 22-ranked recruit in the 2023 ESPN 60 is only focused on one goal. He recently ventured into the Midwest to explore the realms of the Big 12 Conference, but stated college basketball isn’t his main focus right now.
High school basketball is in session and Bradshaw and his teammates have a mission to accomplish.
“In the past month, I’ve been on an Oklahoma State visit and that’s really it,” Bradshaw said. “I’ve been focusing on my high school year. I’m not really worried about college yet. I want to win a state championship with my brothers. I don’t call them my teammates — they (are) my brothers. I love it here.”