ABERDEEN TWP. – The mere thought of winning an NJSIAA championship at Matawan was completely alien just three years ago, when juniors Jason Dunne and Joe Piscopo were just entering a program that was beginning to scratch the surface of respectability after hitting its low point just years earlier.

“When Joe and I were first starting here as freshmen, nobody was talking about winning a championship,” Dunne said. “We were just hoping to win some games, maybe get over .500 so we could get into the tournaments. If you would have told me we would be playing for a championship three years later, I probably wouldn’t have believed it.”

Matawan senior Joe Piscopo scored 13 points and turned in a stellar defensive effort to lead the Huskies to a Central Jersey Group II semifinal win over Spotswood.

Dunne, Piscopo and the rest of this year’s Huskies are now one game away from finishing a seven-year turnaround with a sectional championship after outlasting Spotswood, 45-42, in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II semifinals Saturday afternoon. The top-seeded Huskies will host No. 10 Rumson-Fair Haven – 71-69 winners over Willingboro on Saturday – in Tuesday’s championship.

“It’s pretty sweet going from 0-24 to a sectional final in seven years and doing it the right way with great kids,” said Matawan head coach Tom Stead, who went 0-24 in his first season as Huskies head coach back in 2006-07.

Although its 23-4 record might suggest otherwise, Matawan has been in a number of close games on its home floor this season and found itself in a familiar position Saturday against the No. 4 Chargers. Spotswood took the lead during the early part of the second quarter and did not trail until the opening minute of the fourth quarter.

“We usually fall behind, especially in our gym,” Stead said. “Tonight was nothing new for our kids. We’re a second-half team, but we usually play pretty good defense all game long.”

Matawan trailed 35-33 heading to the fourth and took the lead on a three-point play by senior Nick Tomkins. Senior Austen Planes found the cutting Tomkins with a bounce pass and Tomkins finished his driving attempt as he was fouled to tie the game at 35. His ensuing free throw gave Matawan a 36-35 lead, one the Huskies would not relinquish.

“We like the bright lights,” Planes said. “I don’t know what it is, but ever since Joe (Piscopo’s game-winning shot to beat Christian Brothers Academy in the Shore Conference Tournament) last year, it’s been like that. Joe’s a big-time player, (Dunne) has always been a big-time player and honestly, I think that’s just rubbed off on me and the rest of the guys.”

A lay-up by Planes and a jumper by Dunne – his first field goal of the game – put Matawan ahead 40-35, but Spotswood drew closer thanks to Marlon Hart, who converted a lay-up and later hit one out of two free throws to cut the Huskies lead to 40-38.

1 - Austen Planes from Chris Tawiah from All Shore Media on Vimeo.

2 - Jason Dunne pullup jumper from All Shore Media on Vimeo.

Dunne pushed the lead back to four with a driving lay-up after a defensive breakdown by the Chargers with 1:05 left. After another free throw cut Matawan’s lead to 42-39, Chris Tawiah finished his first field goal of the second half, a baseline drive for a reverse lay-up that gave Matawan a 44-39 lead with 15 seconds left.

3 - Jason Dunne drives for 2 from All Shore Media on Vimeo.

4 - Chris Tawiah driving layup from All Shore Media on Vimeo.

Spotswood senior Jake Dadika then came back and drew a foul on a three-point attempt with 6.7 seconds left. Dadika hit all three shots to cut the Matawan lead to 44-42 and the Chargers fouled Piscopo immediately after the inbound pass.

Piscopo hit the front end of the 1-and-1 chance. After a timeout by Spotswood, the junior guard missed the second attempt that would have clinched the win with 5.7 seconds left. Dadika pulled up for a long three-point attempt for the tie, but senior Mike Vella tipped the shot and it fell well short to end the game.

5 - Matawan wins from All Shore Media on Vimeo.

After the Huskies sat in a zone for most of the first half, Piscopo drew the primary assignment on Dadika – who became Spotswood’s all-time leading scorer by scoring 39 points in his team’s quarterfinal win over Manchester on Thursday. After shooting 4-for-13 in the first half, Dadika made two of six attempts in the second half and shot 0-for-3 from behind the three-point arc after halftime. He finished 6-for-19 with 19 points.

“You know when he gets into the lane, it’s as good as a finish,” Stead said of Dadika. “We just couldn’t let him go off and get in any kind on a rhythm and go for 25 or 30. I though our kids did a great job. Piscopo was the primary guy, and he did a phenomenal job.”

Piscopo also led Matawan’s balanced scoring effort with 13 points. Planes added nine points to go with eight rebounds. Vella and Tomkins also combined for nine points off the bench while Matawan shut out Spotswood’s bench. The contributions from Planes, Vella and Tomkins helped overcome off shooting nights by Dunne (six points on 2-for-11) and Tawiah (four points on 2-for-9).

“My focus is usually on the inside – getting rebounds, setting screens, things like that,” Planes said. “Our guards are such great scorers and they're so unselfish, it makes it easy to find shots. Sometimes I need to score, but it’s usually those guys who are creating the shots, even if they’re not making their shots.”

“We’ve been in enough games like this to know that we’re going to have bad shooting days,” Dunne said. “We just know to not force things, keep shooting when the shots are there and most importantly, play defense. We know if we defend for four quarters, we’ll usually find enough offense to win.”

Matawan is seeking its first sectional championship in nearly 50 years and will face a fellow Shore Conference team in Rumson that has never won a sectional title and was last in a sectional final as a Group I school 20 years ago, according to Rumson’s athletic department.

The last time Matawan was in a sectional final, Stead was on the opposing bench as the head coach of Holmdel. The Huskies lost to the Hornets in the 1996 Central Jersey Group II final and Stead went on to lead Holmdel to two Group II championships.

“I showed the guys this in the locker room and said, ‘We’ve got a chance to go play for one of these in red,’” Stead said, holding up his blue-stoned state championship ring from his days at Holmdel. “They all jumped me, but then they asked, ‘What time’s practice tomorrow morning coach?’

“They’re ready to go. That’s what makes them fun. We’ll get them some bagels, we’ll watch some film and we’ll get ready to play.”

 

 

Box Score

Matawan 45, Spotswood 42

1

2

3

4

F

Spotswood (22-6)

9

16

10

7

42

Matawan (23-4)

10

12

11

12

45

 

Spotswood (42): Jake Dadika 6 5-5 19, Eric Dadika 2 0-0 6, Matt Ciaccio 3 1-2 7, Marlon Hart 1 1-3 3, Kevin Fox 3 0-0 7, Nick Reed 0 0-0 0, Nyron Lewis 0 0-0 0, Oliver Jimenez 0 0-0 0, Eugene Anderson 0 0-0 0. Totals: 15 7-10 42

Three-pointers: J. Dadika 2, E. Dadika 2, Fox

Matawan (45): Joe Piscopo 3 5-8 13, Jason Dunne 2 2-2 6, Dritan Gjyriqi 2 0-1 4, Austen Planes 4 1-4 9, Chris Tawiah 2 0-0 4, Nick Tomkins 1 2-3 4, Mike Vella 1 3-4 5. Totals: 15 13-22 45

Three-pointers: Piscopo 2