The victory enabled the Bruins to improve their record to 19-5 overall and gave the school its first boys' basketball county championship since 1977.
That year, the Bruins not only captured the HCIAA championship, but they also went on to win the NJSIAA Group IV state championship as well.
North Bergen had advanced to seven HCIAA title games during that time span - and lost all seven times. "I don't know if the monkey is off our back," said second-year North Bergen head coach Kevin Bianco, who wasn't even born when the Bruins last won the county title. "But it certainly is good. The kids deserve it. They're the ones who got it done."
Rodriguez, usually known for his talents as a football player, where he is expected to be one of the most recruited players in New Jersey next year, showed that he can play a little basketball as well. He scored 12 points and grabbed nine rebounds, earning the game's Most Valuable Player award.
It was a key stretch by Rodriguez early in the fourth quarter that secured the historic win for the Bruins.
After the Bruins blew an 11-point lead in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, allowing the Bees (22-3) to go on a 12-0 run to take a 37-36 lead with 5:37 remaining in the game, Rodriguez simply took over the game, doing a little bit of everything.
The 6-foot-3-inch Rodriguez first worked diligently to grab an offensive rebound, then put it in for a 38-37 Bruin lead. After Bayonne's Linoll Mercedes scored on a 3-point play (rebound basket and free throw) with 4:31, giving the Bees a 40-38 lead, Rodriguez was trying to be a hero once again.
Rodriguez canned a long 3-pointer and was fouled on the play, giving him a chance to make a rare 4-point play. Rodriguez missed the free throw, but the 22-foot bomb gave the Bruins the lead for good at 41-40 with 4:06 left. Twenty seconds later, Rodriguez scored on another rebound basket, meaning that he scored seven straight Bruin points. His final basket of the day pushed the lead to 43-40 with 3:41 left.
On Bayonne's next possession, the Bees missed two shots from close range. Who was there for the Bruins to snare the rebound? None other than the impromptu basketball star.
Rodriguez passed the ball to Gary Felices, who was fouled. Felices, usually the team's leading scorer, nailed both free throws to push the lead to 45-40 with 1:40 left.
The Bruins then controlled the action for the remainder of the game, connecting on four free throws in the final 49 seconds to seal the victory and remove the demons that remained at the school for the last three decades.
"We just relaxed and pulled together," said Rodriguez, who paced a balanced scoring attack with his 12 points.
"All we talked about all year was getting a chance to play for the county championship. We tried to block out all the talk of the last time North Bergen won. We didn't want to think too much about it, because the playoffs are always so tough. But it was definitely in our heads, especially during practice. We just had to come out here and play hard."
Besides Rodriguez, the Bruins received 11 points from Felices, who hit 9-of-10 from the free throw line, including 5-of-6 in the final quarter. Junior reserve forward Kenny DeDios came off the bench to score nine huge points, and senior point guard Ralph Fernandez, who returned home to Guttenberg to attend school after transferring to Coral Gables Senior High School in Florida from St. Anthony in Jersey City, had eight points and six assists.
"It was a real team effort," Bianco said. "This win took all of them. Evan might have been the MVP, but it really could have been any one of them."
Bianco was a fine player during his days at North Bergen High School. During his career, he never got the chance to play for a title, reaching the Coviello Division semifinals in 1996.
"I think this is a win for everyone in North Bergen," Bianco said.
It certainly was for people like Mayor Nicholas Sacco, who came to center court with the rest of the team to accept the championship trophy. Sacco was very proud to be a part of the victory celebration, but it was all about the kids and the reluctant basketball star.
"Yeah, I still think I'm a football player," Rodriguez said.
Not last Saturday; Rodriguez was a basketball star, one for the history books in North Bergen.