It was a rare basketball bonanza for the local hoop fanatic last Saturday in Jersey City, with two games separated by only a few miles and a few hours.
At 3:30 p.m., St. Anthony played host – if one can call it that – to Saddle River Day in one NJSIAA Non-Public B North semifinal contest.
Then at 7 p.m., Hudson Catholic welcomed Hawthorne Christian in the other semifinal game in that Non-Public B North bracket.
The winners of the two games would then meet Thursday night for the state sectional championship at Rutgers University.
It’s a setting that the two local parochial powerhouses have participated in for the last two years, with the fabulous Friars knocking off the Hawks in each of the last two state sectional title games.
So everyone was counting on the Friars and the Hawks both winning their respective semifinal game and punching their respective tickets to the Rutgers Athletic Center, affectionately known as “The RAC,” for the state playoff showdown for the third straight year.
Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened, as the Friars impressively took care of Saddle River Day, winning 77-42, and the Hawks disposed of Hawthorne Christian, 49-26, to make sure of the Jersey City tussle for the Non-Public B North title.
Since both teams were heavily favored and simply expected to win last Saturday, the semifinal games represented opportunities for both to work on some different things while performing in front of the home fans for the final time this season.
The Friars, left without a home court since a flood damaged the floor on the Bob Hurley Court inside the METS Charter School in downtown Jersey City, had used Middle School No. 7 on Laidlaw Avenue in the Heights as its impromptu home.
The school doesn’t have a public address system and just recently added an electronic scoreboard, but it was home all the same for the Friars.
“I felt much better about this game than the others,” said St. Anthony head coach Bob Hurley, left without the luxury of playing on the floor that bears his name. “We didn’t play the score. We played the situation. We’re trying to build some momentum and that hasn’t been an easy thing to do. But we’re heading in the right direction.”
The Friars received 23 points from senior point guard Tarin Smith, who did everything right and played under complete control.
“He’s smooth,” Hurley said of Smith, who has a host of NCAA Division I scholarship offers, but has yet to make his decision about his future. “He understands the game plan well and almost played a flawless game today.”
Smith played the role of being the Friars’ leader very well. He made sure the ball was distributed – and it was equally passed all over the floor.
The other Friar standout was junior forward Markis McDuffie, who stands 6-foot-8, but when he waves his long arms, it’s almost like he’s 7-foot-4. McDuffie also has a soft shooting touch from the perimeter, making him a deadly combination of an inside player with an outside shooter’s mentality, a lot like NBA scoring leader Kevin Durant.
McDuffie has been limited recently due to a bad back, but he showed no signs of the injury while scoring 20 points from all over the place.
“They are two really good offensive players,” Hurley said of Smith and McDuffie. “These two have been able to click well together and are able to establish themselves. Markis is just starting to feel like himself. When he’s healthy, the sky’s the limit.”
There’s no question that this Friar team, with Smith and McDuffie leading the way and others like Cheddi Mosely and Shaquille McFarland in the mix, is a much better bunch than the squad that defeated Hudson Catholic last year in the sectional final before falling to Roselle Catholic in the Non-Public B title game.
This team has more offensive capability and firepower. They run the floor well and find themselves open shots from the perimeter. Regardless of the opponent, the Friars’ performance against Saddle River Day was extremely impressive.
Fresh off the victory over St. Peter’s Prep in the Hudson County Tournament finale, the Hawks graced the Joe “Rocky” Pope Memorial Gymnasium for the final time this season against the undermanned Defenders of Hawthorne Christian. Yes, that is their nickname.
The Hawks raced out to a 22-6 first quarter and a 33-10 halftime lead, then just cruised home from there.
Junior forward Sammy Friday had a huge game, scoring 17 points, while senior guard J.R. Lynch added 15. Lynch had seven points and Friday six in the opening stanza.
And while Smith is in complete control of the Friars, the same can be said about Lynch with the Hawks. He might not be the biggest kid in the world, but Hoboken product Lynch controls the game, like the basketball is on a string.
Hudson Catholic head coach Nick Mariniello said that the big early lead enabled his team to get ready for the showdown with the Friars.
“I thought the game was in control going into halftime,” Mariniello said. “So we wanted to get out of the game healthy and not give away too many things of what we do.”
Unlike the last two years, the Friars and Hawks had four whole days to prepare for the showdown.
“I would say you don’t want to over prepare,” Mariniello said. “We have an idea of what we want to do and what they want to do. They also have four days to prepare, too, so it’s a double-edged sword.”
And obviously, the Hawks have something to prove, because they have lost the last two meetings.
“St. Anthony is the gold standard of what you want in a high school basketball program,” Mariniello said. “Everyone chases St. Anthony and everyone chases Coach Hurley. There’s a bigger picture in this rivalry. For us to get back to the RAC with this team is a tribute to these kids, it really is.”
Another local team making a return trip to the RAC is St. Peter’s Prep. The Marauders advanced to the NJSIAA Non-Public A title game against top seeded Don Bosco Prep via a thrilling 63-62 win over Bergen Catholic in the semifinals in Oradell Monday night.
The Marauders are still playing without freshman point guard Nate Pierre-Louis, who suffered a concussion in the loss to Hudson Catholic in the county championship game a week ago Saturday.
Vic Jusino had 18 points and Austin White added 16 for the Marauders.
It means that three of the four teams playing at Rutgers in the state sectional title games are from Hudson County. That alone is something to be very proud of.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.