ABERDEEN - The players on the Matawan boys basketball did not have much experience in tight games in loud gyms prior to this season, at least not in the current roles that each is playing.

According to fourth-year Matawan coach John Giraldo, that clean state might be the reason his team has been so good when the game is on the line. With no frame of reference, this year's Huskies squad has formed its own identity and to this point, that identity is one of a team built for the clutch.

For the fourth time in six home games, Matawan - the No. 3 seed and the host school in the Huskies Holiday Classic - rallied to pull out close game, this time edging top-seeded Old Bridge, 52-50, in overtime to capture the program's first tournament championship since winning the Classic in 2013.

Photo by Matt Manley
Photo by Matt Manley

"I think our inexperience has actually played to our advantage," Giraldo said. "We have some talented guys who don't know that they are supposed to feel pressure in those moments. They all trust one another and they are not intimidated by the moment. It's been this way all year so far: it's a different guy stepping up every night and really, it's been all five starters and a few guys off the bench contributing every single game."

With the win, Matawan is now 6-0 on its home floor and four of those wins are by a one-score margin. Junior Ethan Okello has scored the game-winning basket in three of the four wins, including the go-ahead basket on Saturday night with 1:23 remaining in overtime. Okella's putback off a miss by junior John Beukers was the only basket by either during the overtime period, as Matawan's defense locked up the Knights the rest of the way to preserve the team's fifth straight win.

"We are a group of guys that just believes in each other," Okello said. "If things aren't going our way, we don't get down on ourselves. We just bear down on defense and keep playing hard and keep playing with confidence."

Beukers highlighted the defensive effort in overtime with three of his six blocks in the game come in the extra session. The 6-foot-6 junior, who scored the winning basket in an opening-night win over Neptune, finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks.

Senior Justyn Coleman was the other Matawan standout on defense and on the glass. Coleman contributed eight points and 11 rebounds and also guarded Old Bridge guard Julius Benton, who finished with a team-high 14 points but could not get a clean shot off over Coleman on the Knights' penultimate possession.

Old Bridge's final possession ended with Mike Oliva flinging a desperation three-point attempt over two defenders that missed and wound up with Coleman to end the game.

"We have been in this situation a lot already this season and a few guys had some experience with close games last year," Coleman said. "We really feel like defense is the strength of our team and in the fourth quarter, you have to be ready to play defense and get stops."

For the second time this season, Matawan erased a double-digit deficit at home to win - the first of which was against Neptune on opening night. On Saturday, the Huskies trailed Old Bridge, 44-34, with a little more than a minute to go in the third quarter and 44-36 heading into the fourth after a basket by Beukers off a feed from Coleman.

The Buekers bucket kicked off a 13-1 run that ended with junior Niles Haliburton stroking the go-ahead three-pointer to put Matawan ahead, 47-45, with 2:54 to go. The three was the fifth of the game for Haliburton, who finished with 15 points on 5-for-6 shooting from beyond the arc.

Old Bridge immediately responded to Haliburton's three with one from Oliva out of the left corner to propel the Knights back into the lead, 48-47. Matawan senior Quincy Wathington came back with another go-ahead bucket, scoring on a putback off the glass to make it 49-48 with 2:10 left. The senior guard finished with 10 points and was named tournament Most Valuable Player.

Coleman hit one of two foul shots with 1:20 left to extend the Matawan lead to two but Belton came back with a pull-up jumper from the foul line to tie it at 50-50 with 59 seconds left.

Okello finished with eight points and six rebounds, giving Matawan five starters with at least eight points. The 6-2 junior has assumed the role of point guard this season, a position vacated by classmate Darrell Rogers. This past May, Rogers went into cardiac arrest and spent three months in the hospital.

"It's all for number five," Okello said, referring to Rogers. "We go out and leave in on the court for him every night. When we're faced with a tough situation, we think of him because we know he is going through something tougher and he's fighting through it."

While his friend continues to recover and show steady progress, Okello has stepped up to fill a role unfamiliar to him but one his team needed him to assume with Rogers slated to miss the season.

"Coach told me he needed me to play point guard and I was ready to do whatever I had to do to help my team," Okello said. "I don't get as many shots as I did but if sacrificing those shots helps us win, that's what I'm going to do. We have a bunch of guys who can score so it's all about getting them the ball."

Matawan's wild, emotional ride to the tournament championship is the first since December of 2013, which came a little more than two months before the Huskies captured their first NJSIAA sectional championship in 57 years with a roster led by current Hartford University senior Jason Dunne.

"It means a lot for us," Coleman said. "It's been a while since we brought this trophy back home and we wanted to be the team that did it. This is our tournament and Matawan is about championships so we wanted to start with this one."

It is only December, but Matawan has shown a level of grit that no coach could ever anticipate from such an inexperienced team. The Huskies graduated their top two scorers from last year and Rogers was the team's No. 3 scorer, with only Beukers returning to the starting lineup.

"We have been fortunate," Giraldo said. "We have had some balls bounce our way and we have taken advantage. We could very easily by 1-6 if one small things goes in the other direction in each game. These guys have made a lot happen with their intensity and their toughness and their heart and there is still a lot we can improve upon.

"As a coach, I don't know what it is that makes a team so good in these moments, but these guys have it and it's a great characteristic to have in a team. Hopefully it serves us well going forward."


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