PHOTOS BY JR PARACHINI: Above, Johnson head coach Dave Kennedy talks to his team during a second half timeout. Below, Johnson junior George Visconti is at the free throw line. Visconti paced the Crusaders with 17 points in his team’s 53-47 Sky Division home win over Oratory Prep.
CLARK – Don’t look now, but since the middle of last February the Johnson boys’ basketball team is on a 17-2 run.
Yes. Johnson. The Crusaders from Clark.
They have won 17 of their last 19 games dating back to closing out last year by winning four of their last five to conclude their 2015-2016 season at 12-13.
Johnson’s highlight last year was producing the program’s first division title as the Crusaders captured the Union County Conference’s Sky Division championship.
On Saturday night at Johnson High School’s Louis J. Peragallo Gymnasium, the Crusaders repeated as a division champion for the first time in program history.
Visiting Oratory Prep challenged Johnson right until the very end, coming back from a double-digit deficit to pull to within two points with less than a minute to go.
However, clutch free throw shooting by Johnson sophomore guard Brenden Kelly in that final minute – Kelly made his last four foul shots for Johnson’s and the game’s final four points after he previously missed three straight earlier in the fourth quarter – helped clinch Johnson’s second straight Sky Division crown.
In a game where they had to play with leading scorer George Visconti on the bench for the final 2:35 after the junior standout fouled out for the first time in his high school career, Johnson held on for a hard-fought 53-47 win over Oratory Prep in UCC-Sky Division play.
“Oratory had a good game plan and also played us tough at their place,” Johnson head coach Dave Kennedy said.
As a result of Saturday night’s victory, Johnson won its fourth straight to improve to 13-1 overall and 8-0 in the Sky Division. Second place New Providence took a 7-7 overall record and 6-2 division mark into Saturday’s scheduled home division game against Brearley.
With Johnson having only two more division games and since the Crusaders swept New Providence that gives Johnson the division title outright for the second straight season.
Oratory Prep lost its second straight to fall to 6-8 overall and is now 5-4 and in third place in the Sky Division with one division game remaining at Dayton.
In each half against Oratory Prep Saturday night Johnson appeared to be on its way to a convincing double-digit victory – Johnson began both halves with 6-0 runs – only to see the Rams from Summit fight back time and time again.
Both teams also had the lead three times during a seesaw first quarter.
“They match up well with us,” Kennedy said. “Fortunately we were able to stay ahead.
“I think the key was that we made stops when we had to.”
Visconti led a balanced Johnson scoring attack with 16 points, while junior Joe DiProfio poured in 12 and Kelly and fellow sophomore Brandon Hund had eight apiece.
Oratory Prep was sparked by a solid performance from non-starter Anthony Guerriero. The senior guard scored all of his team-high 17 points in the second and third quarters, pouring in eight in the second and nine of Oratory Prep’s 11 in the third.
When he entered the game in the second quarter he helped spark an 8-2 run that put Oratory Prep up by five – its biggest lead – at 17-12.
Johnson followed with a 15-3 run before lefty-shooting sophomore Casey McKee of Oratory Prep drained a 3-point basket at the first half buzzer to pull the Rams to within 27-22 at intermission.
A jumper by DiProfio put Johnson up by 11 at 37-26 midway though the third period and then one of two free throws made by Visconti gave the Crusaders their biggest lead of 12 at 40-28.
Guerriero’s final five points – baskets on a layup and 3-pointer from the top of the key – brought Oratory Prep back to 40-33 before Kelly scored in the lane to make the score 42-33 in favor of Johnson heading into the fourth quarter.
Visconti produced the game’s only 3-point play after scoring inside and hitting the ensuing free throw. That put Johnson ahead by nine again at 45-36 early in the fourth.
However, Oratory Prep came back and quickly behind McKee’s third and final 3-pointer and a layup by junior Billy Skinner that got the team pumped up because he was also fouled on the play.
Skinner, who did a good job of guarding Visconti in Oratory Prep’s man-to-man defense, missed the free throw that followed. After Visconti followed with his final two baskets to put Johnson ahead by eight at 49-41 the Rams came back once more after Visconti fouled out with the score 49-43.
“This was the first time George ever fouled out,” Kennedy said. “It can happen. We hope it doesn’t anymore.”
This time a basket in the lane by Skinner and then inside baskets by junior John Lally – for his only four points of the game – pulled Oratory Prep to within two at 49-47 with 58 seconds remaining. Lally’s second bucket came after he grabbed an offensive rebound.
“There were stretches where we let up a couple of times on defense,” DiProfio said.
Lally then got the ball back for Oratory Prep and passed to Guerriero, who launched a 3-point field goal attempt from the right side that would have given the Rams back the lead.
However, Guerriero’s shot missed, with Hund grabbing that all-too-important rebound and then getting fouled with 31 seconds to go.
Kelly this time came through with two free throws to make it a 51-47 game.
Kelly then stole an errant pass, was fouled again, and made two more free throws for the game’s final points with 6.4 seconds left.
Oratory Prep then missed a long-range 3 and Johnson became the Sky Division champions once again.
The four free throws Kelly made at the very end for important insurance points were the only free throws he made.
Hund scored all eight of his points in the first half.
“We had to step it up on defense at the end and we did,” DiProfio said.
Johnson, which won at Oratory Prep 42-30 back on Jan. 12, was also victorious Saturday night without senior starter Brendan Stanzione, who has been out of the lineup since an injury he suffered in Johnson’s Jan 15 game vs. Union Catholic at Kean University.
“We have multiple guys that can score and I think that’s the biggest reason we’re 13-1,” Kennedy said. “We hope to have Brendan back Tuesday.”
“Without George and also without Brendan Stanzione we needed help on the boards,” DiProfio said.
“DiProfio rebounded real well for us tonight,” Kennedy said.
“It was a matter of everyone else stepping up for us to get this win,” DiProfio said.
Winning seasons have been pretty rare for Johnson boys’ basketball, so the Crusaders are enjoying this ride at the moment and still can look forward to a ton of meaningful basketball before the season is over.
“Winning the division two years in a row is special,” Kennedy said. “We still have Dayton and Brearley ahead and would like to get as high a seed as possible for the county and state tournaments.”
“We just want to win as many games as we can,” DiProfio said. “After winning our division two years in a row now, maybe we can move up a division for next year.”
Johnson is next scheduled to host Dayton Tuesday, which will be its 15th and final power points qualifying game for the Central Jersey, Group 2 playoffs, and will then play at Brearley Thursday, which will be its final division matchup. The Crusaders are then scheduled to host Valley Division foe Summit next Saturday.
The Union County Tournament will be seeded after the Super Bowl.
NOTES: Johnson and Oratory Prep finished tied for first in the Sky Division last year, both at 7-2. Johnson won the division title outright based on sweeping the season series against Oratory Prep. Johnson won 64-54 at home and then 65-55 in Summit 18 days later. Both did not play one of their 10 division games a season ago.
UNION COUNTY CONFERENCE-SKY DIVISION GAME
Oratory Prep (6-8, 5-4) 12 10 11 14 – 47
Johnson (13-1, 8-0) 10 17 15 11 – 53
ORATORY PREP RAMS (47):
32-John Lally, junior, 2-0-0-4
3-Billy Skinner, junior, 4-0-0-8
20-Casey McKee, sophomore, 0-3-0-9
25-AJ Kopacz, junior, 4-0-1-9
11-Liam Otterbein, junior, 0-0-0-0
13-Anthony Guerriero, senior, 4-2-3-17
Starters: Kopacz, Lally,
McKee, Otterbein, Skinner.
JOHNSON CRUSADERS (53):
5-Brenden Kelly, sophomore, 2-0-4-8
14-George Visconti, junior, 6-1-2-17
22-Joe DiProfio, junior, 6-0-0-12
3-Jeff Drajin, junior, 3-0-0-6
2-Brandon Hund, sophomore, 1-2-0-8
30-Ray Williamson, senior, 1-0-0-2
Starters: DiProfio, Drajin,
Hund, Kelly, Visconti.