ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS -- The Henry Hudson boys basketball team made significant strides in 2022-23 -- its third season under head coach Brian Kelly -- but for as much progress as the Admirals made in doubling their combined win total from the previous two seasons, none of those wins came in Shore Conference divisional play.

Then, the Shore Conference introduced crossover games for this current season, and Henry Hudson's 2023-24 division schedule got even tougher than the one that saddled the Admirals with a 0-8 record.

"I was looking at what we had and having a sense of what the other teams in our division were losing -- Keyport, Keansburg, Asbury (Park). I thought this could be a year we could win a few games against our division." Kelly said. "Then the realignment happened and looking at the schedule, you just don't know. Two years ago, we played those schools like Shore and Monmouth Regional and those were 40-point blowouts. I liked what we had coming back and I knew we were better, but you're never totally sure until the team gets on the court and to their credit, the guys have responded."

Through nine games this season, Henry Hudson has demonstrated that the team is improving faster than the schedule is intensifying and a 41-34 win over Monmouth Regional Thursday on Vinnie Whitehead Court was the latest exhibit.

Junior guard Jack Fitzpatrick led the Admirals with 19 points and Mike Fitzpatrick closed it out at the free-throw line, hitting 8-of-9 from the stripe in the fourth quarter to finish off a 10-point performance in another Henry Hudson win during an 8-1 start to the season.

Jack Fitzpatrick poured in eight points in the third quarter after scoring nine in the first half, but the Admirals could not shake the Falcons, who trailed, 27-25, heading into the final eight minutes.

Monmouth led, 4-0, in the opening minutes and finally reclaimed the lead twice in the fourth quarter -- first on a pull-up three-pointer by junior James Curley to make it 28-27. Henry Hudson senior Jeremy Way answered with a jumper on the other end to push the Admirals back ahead, before sophomore Michael Griffin hit a floater in the lane to give the Falcons a 30-29 lead.

Griffin came off the bench and scored all of his team-high 10 points in the second half, including a pair of three-pointers in the third that chopped Henry Hudson's 27-19 lead to 27-25.

Junior Kevin Pharo -- a transfer from Monmouth Regional -- hit 1-of-2 free throws to tie the game at 30 for Henry Hudson and Jack Fitzpatrick sank a contested go-ahead jumper with four minutes to go to make it 32-30.

From there, Henry Hudson held Monmouth without a field goal until Griffin hit a shot at the final buzzer and leaned on the younger Fitzpatrick to close out the win on the free-throw line. Mike Fitzpatrick went 10-for-11 at the free-throw line in the game and his fourth-quarter foul-line parade began when he was fouled on a three-point attempt while his team led, 32-31.

Mike Fitzpatrick buried all three free-throws to extend the lead to four and made his next two to push the lead to 37-31.

"I didn't know how we would handle a tight game, because we didn't have that many of them over the years," Kelly said. "We were either losing games big or winning big -- I could probably count on one hand how many under-10 games we had, but I think that's where our experience is starting to show. Obviously, Jack is our go-to scorer, but other guys are stepping up and making big plays. They know their roles, the trust each other and they are playing with confidence."

No Henry Hudson player outside the Fitzpatricks reached double-figure scoring, but freshman JoJo Newell led a spirited effort by his team on the glass with 14 rebounds to go with his three points. Senior Damyon Sparks-Edwards also provided a spark off the bench for the Admirals with his eight rebounds.

Henry Hudson's defense quieted Monmouth sophomore wing and top scorer Ahmir Wiggins, who scored the first four points of the game and did not score again. Curley finished with eight, but battled foul trouble throughout the game and fouled out with 4:20 left in the fourth quarter.

"In the Shore and Monmouth (wins), defense was definitely our strong point," Kelly said. "They were lower-scoring games, so we really locked in, made some big shots, hit some foul shots and got it done."

During its 8-1 start to the season, Henry Hudson has feasted on the same portion of the schedule that helped the Admirals get to 12-13 overall last season despite going 0-8 in Class B Central play. Among the eight wins so far are Perth Amboy Magnet, University Charter, Somerset Tech and College Achieve Central.

The hot start, however, also includes some wins that show significant progress for the program. Henry Hudson won the Middlesex-Shore Holiday Tournament by beating a 6-2 South Amboy squad and a South River team that battled Manasquan in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II championship game last year.

The two big Shore Conference wins are Thursday's win over Monmouth and a 47-45 victory over 2023 Central Group I runner-up Shore Regional, which was ranked No. 16 in the Shore Sports Network Shore 16 rankings at the time and has not lost another game this season.

"We have a young group that has been together for a few years," Kelly said. "They bought into our system even when were were losing 20 games. Credit to them: it's hard to keep kids motivated when the results aren't there, but they have just kept working hard and it's been really fun to see it start to come to fruition."

With two wins over teams from the Class A Central -- as well as a loss to Donovan Catholic -- Henry Hudson is primed to make a serious run at its first division championship since 1988-89. Under the new Shore Conference rules, the Admirals and their B Central counterparts play crossover games vs. A Central that count toward the division record that determines the division champion, but the Class B Central race is limited only to the teams in Class B Central: Henry Hudson, Point Beach, Asbury Park, Keyport and Keansburg.

With Henry Hudson already 2-1 in crossover games and Point Beach already losing to Monmouth and yet to play Shore and Donovan Catholic, Henry Hudson has an early leg up on its competition. Ultimately, however, the Admirals will still have to beat those division foes in order to add 2024 to their division championship banner.

"There is a lot of season left, but the big thing is they are believing now," Kelly said. "It's fun to see that kind of progression, because it hasn't been here in a long time."

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