RUMSON - Before tipping off on opening night in late December, Rumson-Fair Haven coach Chris Champeau turned to his assistants and asked what they thought of the team as the season opened.

"He looked at me and said, 'If we go 12-8, they should erect a statue for us,'" Champeau said.

Champeau, his assistants and his players might not cash in on that statue, but they will at least get a banner and some rings after making program history Tuesday night.

The Bulldogs - the top seed in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II section - held off No. 3 Arthur L. Johnson, 57-51, to capture the program's first NJSIAA sectional championship since 1973 in front of a raucous capacity crowd in their home gym.

Photo by Matt Manley

"It's crazy," said sophomore Ian O'Connor, who led Rumson with 19 points and nine rebounds on Tuesday. "We've been working all year for this and we've had the whole school on our back. Everyone's supporting us, the whole town. They were all rallying behind us, looking to be the first ever sectional champs for the boys basketball team at Rumson-Fair Haven. It's crazy."

Rumson finally chased down its elusive sectional championship one year after graduating the program's all-time leading scorer and in the same year the Shore Conference leader in blocked shots in 2015-16 tore the ACL in both knees within a span of 10 months.

Brendan Barry scored more than 1,800 points and led Rumson to its first ever Shore Conference Tournament title in 2015, but could not lead the Bulldogs over the hump in that season or last year. In 2014 - when Barry was a sophomore - Rumson reached the Central Jersey Group II final as a No. 10 seed and lost at Matawan.

With a void left by Barry and returning 6-6 junior Elijah McAllister recovering from a torn ACL, Champeau expected this year's team to be a work in progress that hit its peak late in the year, after the new players had a chance to acclimate and McAllister returned from his injury. In his fourth game back, however, McAllister tore the ACL in his other knee to end his season.

"It ticked us off when everyone said we weren't going to be a good team without (Barry)," senior Tyler Pierson said. "When we lost (McAllister), we got a little bit more of that. I think that just pushed us even more."

Although McAllister's misfortune was not part of Champeau's plan, neither was Rumson's rapid development. It was, however, a welcome deviation that allowed the Bulldogs to win their first 11 games without McAllister and enter the postseason 19-1 - a far cry from the 12-8 prediction.

"These guys believed the whole way," Champeau said. "We had Elijah back and lost him again and bounced back from that. It just tells you the toughness of this crew."

Pierson filled the stat sheet Tuesday with eight points, eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals and also put the exclamation mark on Tuesday's win with a two-handed dunk in the final 10 seconds.

Rumson senior Tyler Pierson (center) celebrates with members of the Dawg Pound. (Photo by Matt Manley)

It was, however, O'Connor who authored the largest share of Rumson's offensive story. His 10 second-quarter points helped Rumson seize control of the game and grab a lead it would not relinquish. O'Connor's first of two three-pointers in the game broke a 12-12 tie and it turned out to be the last time Johnson was even with Rumson in the game.

O'Connor was having a relatively quiet state tournament, averaging eight points in the Bulldogs' first three games. With Johnson geared toward stopping juniors Jack Solano and Teddy Sourlis, though, the sophomore made the Crusaders pay.

"We're a really deep team," O'Connor said. "All five guys in our lineup can shoot. Everyone can hit threes and everyone can drive the ball to the basket. It's just a tough matchup for any team to guard."

While the Crusaders never caught the Bulldogs after O'Connor's three-pointer in the second quarter, they did battle Rumson the whole way. Rumson went up 30-21 early in the third quarter, but watched its lead shrink to 36-35 by the end of the quarter.

Three-pointers by Sourlis and Pierson to open the fourth pushed the lead back to seven, but Johnson again fought within two, 44-42. The Crusaders would also pull within 49-47, but Rumson knocked down six consecutive free throws, avoided turning the ball over and went for the jugular in the final seconds when Sourlis fired a one-handed pass to Pierson on a sideline out-of-bounds play that set the senior up for the game-capping dunk.

"At Rumson, we do take risks," Pierson said. "Sometimes they don't work out, but most of the time, they work out in our favor. We don't like to sit back and stay safe."

Johnson began the game with eight straight points, but the Bulldogs quickly stabilized the game with nine unanswered of their own.

"Even when we were down 8-0 to start the game, we weren't upset," Pierson said. "We were like, 'We're fine. We can get what we want, we're just not (getting it). When we get going, we're going to get what we want.' That's what we did."

Sourlis finished with 10 points of his own behind three three-pointers, while Solano and sophomore Jackson McCarthy chipped in seven apiece. Senior Tommy Oakes also scored six points, including Rumson's first four for the second straight game.

McCarthy gave Rumson his seven points off the bench, which came on a pair of drives to the rim and a three-point play off a feed from O'Connor in the fourth quarter that put Rumson up, 47-42.

"Jackson McCarthy is another guy who is emblematic of our team," Champeau said. "He had a rough go the first half of the season. I put him on jayvee and he fought his way back. We wouldn't be here without him."

Sophomore Brandon Hund led Johnson with 19 points and classmate Brendan Kelly poured in all 11 of his points in the second half. Junior George Visconti entered the game as Johnson's leading scorer at 21.6 points per game, but faced a box-and-one defense all game long with a rotation of defenders in his face.

"What sort of got us back in it was when we went to the box-and-one," Champeau said. "It took them some time to figure that out and I thought to myself, 'Maybe they hadn't seen that before.' Down here, if you're scoring 20-to-25 points, you're getting a box-and-one thrown at you. I learned that from having Brendan Barry."

Champeau and the holdovers from last year learned plenty from Barry and Tuesday's win was the culmination of a legacy that, along with Champeau, the current Dartmouth freshman helped carve out. Since Champeau took over the program in 2009-10, Rumson has been to two sectional final and won one and also been to two Shore Conference Tournament finals with one win as well.

"I truly think, the last two years, we were Brendan Barry and a bunch of tough guys. This was a team. (Barry) is the greatest who ever played here, but this is the greatest team that ever played here."

After making history Tuesday night, Rumson will eventually turn its attention to Camden - the Bulldogs' opponent in the Group II semifinals Thursday night at Perth Amboy High School at 7 p.m. The Panthers won the South Jersey Group II title over Haddonfield, 42-40, in overtime on a floater at the buzzer by John Evans.

Camden has won six consecutive sectional championships - two of them in South Jersey Group III in 2012 and 2013 - and has lost in a group championship game in each of the last four years. The last team to beat Camden in a group semifinal was Neptune in the 2012 Group III semifinals. The Panthers defeated Matawan in 2014 and Manasquan in 2015 as part of their four consecutive wins in the group semifinal round.

The Bulldogs, however, have not yet concerned themselves with Camden's rich history - both recent and distant. Instead, they are basking in the accomplishment of once again making some of their own state tournament history.

"I've been focused on this, so I don't know much about Camden," O'Connor said. "We're going to enjoy this and we'll be up for the challenge."

 

Box Score

Rumson-Fair Haven 57, A.L. Johnson 51

1 2 3 4 F
A.L. Johnson (22-5) 12 5 18 16 51
Rumson-FH (24-2) 9 16 11 21 57

A.L. Johnson (51): Brendan Kelly 3 2-2 11, Brandon Hund 5 5-7 19, Brendan Stanizone 3 2-2 8, Joe DiProfio 3 2-4 8, George Visconti 0 5-5 5, Jeff Drajin 0 0-0 0. Totals: 14 16-20 51

Three-pointers: Kelly 3, Hund 4

Rumson-FH (57): Tommy Oakes 2 2-2 6, Jack Solano 2 3-4 7, Tyler Pierson 3 0-0 8, Ian O'Connor 5 7-9 19, Teddy Sourlis 3 1-3 10, Jack Higgins 0 0-0 0, Jackson McCarthy 3 1-1 7. Totals: 18 14-19 57

Three-pointers: Pierson 2, O'Connor 2, Sourlis 3

Fouled Out: McCarthy

 

Correction: This article originally stated that this was Rumson's first ever sectional championship. It has been corrected to reflect that Rumson last won a Central Jersey Group II championship in 1973.

 

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