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Thursday, March 10, 2011

A memorable night of high school hoops

There are sometimes in my business where you have to pinch yourself to truly believe that you get paid for being a sportswriter.

Last night was one of those nights.

I had the fortune to see two intense high school basketball games, two state sectional championship games, at the Rutgers Athletic Center. I had the luck to be positioned close to the floor and catch the intensity like I was in my own living room.

Jersey City's two best basketball teams, namely St. Peter's Prep and St. Anthony, were going for their respective state sectional titles on the same site where both teams won last year.

The game brought out a ton of celebrities, including Steve Kroft of "60 Minutes" fame, who is doing a feature on Bob Hurley for the March 27 edition of the show. Kroft was seated near the scorer's table, next to Bob's wife, Chris, the best scorekeeper known to man, and actually standing and cheering for the Friars. What's up with that? Journalistic integrity has to be questioned there.

It also brought out Kentucky coach John Calipari, who was in attendance to see his future player Michael Gilchrist, St. Patrick's McDonald's All-American. Calipari said that I looked "younger and much thinner.'' I recommended an opthamologist.

And it also brought out basketball fan Caroline Kennedy. Yes, a member of American royalty sitting in the stands, almost totally unnoticed by the fans around her. Apparently, Caroline's daughter is working on a documentary for HBO about St. Patrick's. Caroline was very gracious when approached and was actually interested in what I did for a living. She also said that she loved Hoboken. Chalk one up for the Mile Square City.

Well, there was a lot of reason for the buzz and the excitement. We'll get to the first game of the double dip in a second. The St. Anthony-St. Patrick's game marked the first time ever that the nation's No. 1 team (the Celtics) and the No. 2 team (the Friars) ever played during a state playoff anywhere.

It was the reason why 8,000 people went to Piscataway to see the historical event and another 2,000 or so were turned away at the door. It's the reason why some people were actually scalping tickets outside the RAC for $100 a pop. Yes, for a high school game.

And the game lived up to the hype. In the end, the Friars won, 62-45, outscoring the Celtics, 23-5, in the final quarter. That's right. St. Patrick's scored five points in the final quarter.

Hell, they scored 15 in the first fivc minutes of the game and only five over the final eight.

That's what we call defense. Hurley crossed up everyone by utilizing a gadget, unconventional defense _ certainly unconventional for St. Anthony. It resembled the old "amoeba" defense that UNLV used. Can you fathom the idea that Hurley took a page from Jerry "Tark the Shark" Tarkanian? Talk about your polar opposites.

Hurley didn't show a hint of that defense in the first three quarters, sticking to his usual man-to-man approach and a dose of zone here and there. Then, when the fourth quarter started, Hurley flipped the switch on the amoeba and the world came crashing in on the Celtics.

The Friars trailed, 40-39, to start the fourth quarter. Just 1:42 into the final stanza, the Friars led, 47-40. Like lightning.

Every day that passes, Kyle Anderson's legacy grows. His image certainly wasn't tarnished at all last night. Anderson made the play of the game, getting a huge block on an attempt by Gilchrist, who was swallowed alive by the Friars' tenacious defense. After knocking Gilchrist's shot into the backboard, Anderson calmly collected the ball, spun and threw a 40-foot chest pass to a streaking Jordan Quick for the layup that gave the Friars a five-point cushion.

Anderson is already getting consideration among the best Friars of all-time. He still has another year to add to that resume, but he's certainly getting there. He's a joy to watch play the game, because he does everything well _ except perhaps shoot from the perimeter.

Once the Friars had the seven-point lead, you knew that it was over. Hurley's teams don't blow leads like that in the fourth quarter. They never really went straight delay, but they did manage to milk some time off the clock and methodically pull away, earning the victory that no one thought was possible.

"I can't describe what just happened out there," Hurley said in the post-game press conference. "We beat a great high school basketball team. They did an outstanding job on defense in the fourth quarter. The game turned out to be everything we thought it would be. The best team won the game and I'm glad it's us."

Added Hurley, "It's a team game and if we were going to win, we were going to have to manage to share the ball. It's just a remarkable performance."

Hurley never wants to take personal credit for victories, giving all the credit to the players. But the man hasn't won 1,012 high school basketball games in his life for nothing. I heard one obvious green-with-envy moron say, "Let him try to win 1,000 games with a public school." I hope the misguided clown watched the game, because Hurley could win 1,000 games coaching a CYO team, which incredibly, where the Hall of Fame career began at my old parish, St. Paul's of Greenville.

Make no mistake about it. This was a Hurley victory. Sure, kids like Myles Mack (19 points) and Lucious "Call Me Lucky" Jones (12 points) made the shots and Anderson (11 points, eight rebounds, five assists) made the plays, but Hurley won the game.

"Coach Hurley changing the defenses," Anderson said. "That was the key. We changed our defense three different times. That was the major point of the game."

It boggles my mind how so many Hurley detractors there are in New Jersey. He should be revered like an icon, like a family heirloom, not lambasted and criticized by people who are just too oblivious and ignorant to see the truth.

What made this win special was the contributions from the holdover Friars. Sure, Mack and Anderson, the Paterson Catholic transfers, get a lot of attention and recognition and deservedly so. But there were kids like Quick, Jones and Jerome Frink, three starters on last year's team, who had to take somewhat of a backseat when the talented newcomers arrived.

With the game on the line, Jones made the shot to put the Friars ahead, Quick made the clutch shot that gave some separation and Frink hit two baskets that sealed the deal.

Someone asked Hurley if it was the biggest win of his career. Hurley reminded the writer that it was a state sectional final, not an overall state championship game. There are more fish to fry for the Friars.

It's not the biggest win, by far. But it's certainly going to be a memorable one, because there weren't a lot of people who thought this win was possible.

While Gilchrist didn't have a good game, Derrick Gordon certainly did, scoring a game-high 26 points. He's headed for Western Kentucky in the fall, but this looked like a kid who perhaps signed his letter of intent a little too soon, because he's the real deal.

As for Anderson, who is only a junior, the sky is definitely the limit. He's well on his way to big-time star status.
The first game pitted St. Peter's against Seton Hall for the Non-Public A North title, a rematch of last year's sectional title game won by the Marauders.

It wasn't a good sign for the Marauders when former Marauder Dallas Anglin, who transferred to Seton Hall Prep last year, nailed the first basket of the night, a 3-pointer that caused the SHP faithful to rhythmically chant, "Thank you, Peter's," as a reminder of letting Anglin go.

It was a precursor of things to come.

The Marauders had a six-point lead at the end of the third quarter, thanks to the shooting prowess of Stephon Whyatt (21 points) and the athleticism of Tre Bell (11 points off the bench and was flying all over the floor. Bell made a great steal and had a chance to push the lead to eight, but mishandled the ball going in for the layup. He's a sophomore. He'll learn to finish.

Anglin scored the first four points of the fourth quarter, then hit a huge 3-pointer that gave the Pirates a 38-37 lead with 2:27 left. Whyatt made one of two free throws with 1:08 left and the game went to overtime, where Seton Hall sealed the deal, making 14-of-17 free throws.

To his credit, St. Peter's head coach Mike Kelly wasn't upset that it was Anglin who delivered all the big plays in the loss.

"Believe it or not, I'm really happy for the kid," Kelly said. "He had to make a tough transition at a new school. I have no animosity whatsoever."

Still, it had to sting a little to know that if the Marauders somehow hung on to Anglin and made him happy, there would have been two state sectional championships at Grand and Warren.

The two teams have faced each other in the state playoffs in each of the last three seasons, with Seton Hall winning twice and St. Peter's winning once.

"It's definitely a budding rivalry between the two schools and I can see it going on for the next couple of years," Seton Hall's well respected coach Bob Farrell said.

Make no bones about it. While the run is over for their "Core Four," Hudson County basketball has never seen a run quite like the one by Prep seniors Kevin Walker, Keith Lumpkin, Chase Fluellen and Whyatt, with the first three being varsity players for all four years and winning four Hudson County titles. Walker and Lumpkin are 1,000-point scorers, the first time ever Prep had two teammates reach the milestone.

"It sucks that it had to end like this," said Lumpkin, who will play football at Rutgers in the fall.

Lumpkin was quicky reminded to change "suck" to "stink," in true Jesuit form.

It would have been nice to crown two state sectional champs again in one night like Hudson County and Jersey City did a year ago. But we'll hang our hats on the fabulous Friars, who never seem to let anyone down.

Now, it's on to Cardinal McCarrick (the alma mater of Devils' radio announcer Matt Loughlin, after he reminded me of that today) and the overall Non-Public B title for the Friars, which would give the school 26 NJSIAA state crowns, 25 of which have come under Hurley's guidance.
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