CBA Basketball Roars Back to SCT Semifinals After Disappointing Season
As Joe Piscopo’s 10-footer from the baseline splashed through the net to send the home crowd into stunned silence and the visiting fans into delirium, the Christian Brothers Academy basketball version of Armageddon had just shockingly transpired.
The Colts had fallen at home to 24th-seeded Matawan on a buzzer-beater in last year’s Shore Conference Tournament round of 16, marking the first time in history that they failed to advance to the SCT quarterfinals for two straight seasons. It also was believed to be Matawan’s first win ever over the perennial Shore power. The loss essentially served as the epitaph on a 16-9 season for the Colts that by their lofty standards was one of the worst in their illustrious history.
“We got a lot of crap after that,’’ said junior forward Jack Laffey.
While the teams weary from being beaten by CBA over the years predictably relished the Colts’ struggles, the players also heard it from their own proud alumni. Sometimes it even came from siblings, as current sophomore standout Pat Andree would hear it from his older brother Tim, who starred along with Dan Werner on CBA’s SCT championship teams of the mid-2000s and played at Notre Dame.
“Every time I see a CBA alum, they go up to me and say, ‘How did you guys lose to Matawan?!’’’ Andree said. “(My brother) would give me some stuff about it. You’ve got to overcome it.”
That moment has become seared in the memories of the returning players and has served as motivational fuel to restore the Colts to their customary spot among the Shore Conference elite. After that two-year stretch of SCT struggles, they are back in the semifinals, where the second-seeded Colts will face defending SCT champion Lakewood at 7:45 p.m. on Wednesday at Brick Memorial. They have been considered the No. 2 team in the Shore all season behind Point Beach and so far have lived up to that expectation.
“We are the most motivated team in the Shore Conference because of what happened last year,’’ Andree said.
“I don’t think anybody worked harder than us in the offseason,’’ Laffey said.
Most teams that played a lineup as young as CBA did last year, which included Andree playing a big role as a freshman, would have gotten a pass. However, at CBA, the expectations are the same no matter who graduates or who is in the lineup.
“We had talent, but we were young,’’ Laffey said. “We thought we could go far, and we didn’t.”
In the Age of the Transfer in New Jersey high school basketball, when things don’t go as planned at a high-profile program like CBA, it often can be followed by the lineup coming apart at the seams because of transfers. Players will often leave for what they believe are greener pastures. CBA lost junior guard Luke O’Shaughnessy, who is now at Manasquan, but otherwise retained the core of last year’s team to return and make a run back to the top in the Shore Conference.
“We all stayed together this year,’’ Laffey said. “We haven’t had any fights. We are all one.”
The experience of last season was either going to break the Colts or make them closer than ever. As Wilt Chamberlain famously said, “Nobody loves Goliath.” With those alternately reveling or angered by their failure all around them, they had to turn to one another.
“Coach (Geoff) Billet says we’re the closest team he has ever had,’’ Andree said. “I love playing with these guys.”
“All the alumni saying stuff, it felt like everybody was against us, but we don’t mind it,’’ Laffey said. “We can handle it.”
Billet knows the pressure all too well. He is a former CBA star whose 1995 team is the only one in Colts history to reach the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions, which was created in 1989.
“The kids joke at school that if we’re playing somebody’s seventh-grade team I’d be nervous,’’ Billet said. “I always feel pressure, but I just want the kids to experience what other teams at CBA have experienced because they have worked so hard.”
Andree, Laffey, senior point guard Rob Kennedy, Navy-bound senior guard Louie Pillari, senior forward Chimaechi Ekekeugbor, senior guard Evan Gordinier and junior point guard Shaun Belbey form the rotation of a team that has not lost to a Shore Conference opponent this season. The Colts are better defensively and have more offensive depth than last season, as Gordinier showed in scoring 10 key points off the bench in their SCT quarterfinal win over Neptune to complement a 21-point effort by Andree.
CBA received its biggest test from a local team in the 50-47 win over Neptune to return to the semifinals for the first time since winning the tournament in 2010. The Scarlet Fliers were the first Shore team this season to lose by less than double digits to the Colts, who made the crucial plays in the fourth quarter despite multiple turnovers against Neptune’s pressure.
“I think we learned we’re a tougher team than a lot of people think,’’ Ekekeugbor said. “Some people thought our division was weak, but we can play with the best. Last year was tough, but it was motivation. We’ve got to continue to prove people wrong.”
Plus, after all the hand-wringing last season, that loss to Matawan looks like it was more a sign of the Huskies’ ascendance than CBA’s downfall. Matawan has reached the SCT semifinals this season for the first time in 50 years and will play Point Beach in the other game at 6 p.m. on Wednesday.
With last season in the rearview mirror and their spot among the top teams in the Shore Conference secured, the Colts now look forward to finishing the job and claiming their 17th SCT title.
“We couldn’t wait to get back to the semifinals, and now that we’re here, we’re going to have some fun,’’ Andree said.