A season that began nearly four months ago with the beginning of official practice has come down to a game of 32 minutes.
This game will determine which of this year’s six state champions will be hoisting another championship trophy.
For a refreshing change we have two teams in the final game of the year for the first time.
On Tuesday night at 8 at the Sun National Bank Center in Trenton it will be second-seeded St. Joseph of Metuchen – the repeat Non-Public A state champion – vs. top-seeded Roselle Catholic of Roselle – the first-time Non-Public B state champ – in the 25th annual Tournament of Champions boys’ basketball championship game.
For the first time in three years both parochial state champions reached the TOC final and also for the first time in three years it will be the top two seeds battling for the crown.
St. Joseph, which last year made its TOC debut, comes in with a 27-4 record and a 13-game winning streak. The Falcons, who also repeated as Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament champions, last loss on Feb. 2, which was a 72-65 decision to the Patrick School of Elizabeth in the Butch Kowal Scholarship Games at Rahway High School.
Roselle Catholic, which is making its TOC debut right now, is 24-5 and on a seven-game winning streak since falling to underdog Union 64-63 on Feb. 16 in a Union County Tournament quarterfinal at Johnson High School in Clark.
This will be the first meeting between the parochial powers – separated by not that far of a distance – in some time. Union County’s Roselle Catholic defeated the last team that beat Middlesex County’s St. Joseph – the Patrick School – three times in three tries, including in the Non-Public, South B final at Rahway.
After capturing the program’s first sectional championship since the early 1960s and its first state title, Roselle Catholic is now one win away from becoming the third school from Union County – Elizabeth was the first and the Patrick School the second – to capture a TOC championship.
Union County has now had a team in the TOC final for the third straight year, the fourth time in the past five seasons and for the seventh time since 2005 – the only exceptions being in 2008 and 2010.
Not only did St. Joseph and Roselle Catholic reach their first TOC final, but they also captured their first TOC wins in Friday night’s semifinals at Monmouth University in West Long Branch.
Both were very decisive in victory, with St. Joseph’s first taking out third-seeded Atlantic City 63-49 before Roselle Catholic ousted fifth-seeded Newark Tech 78-64.
Atlantic City, which for the first time repeated as Group 4 state champions and won 30 games, had a 19-game winning streak snapped and finished 30-2. Its only other loss – also by 14 points – was to St. Anthony 45-31 on Jan. 19 in the Dan Finn Classic at the Jersey City Armory.
Group 2 state champion Newark Tech, which appeared in its second TOC and first since 1991, finished 23-9.
St. Joseph came back from a 31-29 halftime deficit against Atlantic City and dominated the second half, outscoring the Vikings 34-18.
While St. Joseph 7-foot sophomore Karl Towns – who will be heading to Kentucky after his junior season – produced another solid 24 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots performance, he received a great deal of assistance from a number of his teammates.
With Towns on the bench for more than the time of a single quarter, it was the extended efforts of players by the names of Wade Baldwin, Marques Townes, James Ziemba and Jimbo Long that helped lead the Falcons to their first-ever TOC triumph.
So no matter how hard a team prepares to try to stop or limit Towns, there is a supporting cast guided by head coach Dave Turco that must be handled with care as well.
“St. Joseph’s presents a lot of problems,” sixth-year Roselle Catholic head coach Dave Boff said. “Not only do they have great size, but they have a lot of great shooters.
“They’re a unique group. When I watched them on tape they were a little different than most teams we’ve played.”
This will be the first time Roselle Catholic is playing St. Joseph since Boff took over as head coach of the Lions in December of 2007. Trying to prevent Towns from being a dominant player will be no easy task.
“Towns is a tremendous talent,” Boff said. “He’s one of the better players to come out of New Jersey in a long, long time. We must find a way to keep him off balance somehow.”
Roselle Catholic played in front of Newark Tech the entire game, producing the second-most points its scored in a quarter this season when the Lions won the second period 33-19.
“The Newark Tech game went the direction I was hoping it would,” Boff said.
Roselle Catholic received about as balanced a scoring attack as a team could produce, with sophomore Malachi Richardson leading the way with a game-high 21 points. Senior guard Hakim Saintil added 13, senior Kory Highsmith 11 and Syracuse-bound senior Tyler Roberson and freshmen Asante Gist poured in 10 each. Freshman Matt Bullock was a basket shy of the sixth RC player in double digits, finishing with eight points.
“We went up early and then played our regular brand of basketball,” Boff said of his team’s first-ever TOC victory. “We’ve certainly had our peaks and valleys this year, but we’re definitely playing the most as a team right now. This is the most consistent we’ve been.”
For both teams, still practicing and preparing for as big a challenge as Tuesday’s game will be is very new.
“You change the way that you practice a bit,” Boff said. “You have to keep the kids fresh, with the practices probably not as long or as difficult because the kids have been playing for a really long time.”
When the season began, Roselle Catholic was ranked among the top teams in New Jersey, but was probably not seen as one of the final two teams that would be standing past St. Patrick’s Day.
That was something the Lions had to really earn, especially after they were upset in their county tournament.
“Coming into the season I thought we had as much talent as anyone,” Boff said. “This season came down to two things for us.
“One, was how we would gel as a team? Two, was how good the guys would be that were new to high school basketball?”
Those newcomers included freshmen Gist and Bullock and foreign exchange student Chris Silva, a sophomore who also goes by the last name, Obame.
“I don’t think our kids get as much credit as they deserve,” Boff said. “With our conference schedule and 10 top 20 wins, I’m really, really proud of where we’ve come from.”
Roselle Catholic also captured the Union County Conference’s Watchung Division title at 9-1 in its second season in the league, sweeping the Patrick School, Linden, Plainfield and Union and splitting with Elizabeth.
“It was a matter of how quickly we would be able to figure everything out,” Boff said.
The Patrick School in 1998 was the only Union County team to win its first TOC final. The Celtics were also the last Union County unit to capture he TOC, claiming their fifth title in 2009.
“Union County is the top county for basketball in the state, certainly recently and when I was growing up,” Boff said. “We’re very proud to be representing Union County.
“The teams in our league and our county beat each other up all year long.”
Roselle Catholic, which began its season with games at Kean University, West Orange High School and in Philadelphia and which also played at the Prudential Center in Newark, will be competing at Trenton’s Sun National Bank Center for the first time.
“We’ve played in a lot of big venues and big arenas over the last couple of years,” Boff said. “St. Joseph’s has too. I don’t think it will be too big a factor for either team.”
UNION COUNTY TEAMS IN TOC FINALS:
The Patrick School: (5-1) – won in 1998, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009;
lost in 2005.
Elizabeth: (1-1) – won in 1990; lost in 1989.
Plainfield: (0-2) – lost in 2011 and 2012.
Linden: (0-1) – lost in 2006.
Roselle Catholic: (0-0) – reached final in 2013.
2-ST. JOSEPH’S, METUCHEN FALCONS (27-4)
44-Karl Towns, junior
14-Wade Baldwin, junior
13-Sean Finan, senior
21-Brian Fitzpatrick, senior
10-Jimbo Long, senior
12-Raven Owen, junior
15-Marques Townes, junior
1-James Ziemba, senior
Head coach: Dave Turco
1-ROSELLE CATHOLIC LIONS (24-5)
3-Matt Bullock, freshman
4-Asante Gist, freshman
11-Kory Highsmith, senior
24-Omari Hurston, sophomore
12-Malachi Richardson, sophomore
21-Tyler Roberson, senior
20-Hakim Saintil, senior
32-Tyreke Woodard, junior
42-Chris Silva, sophomore
Head coach: Dave Boff