Boys Basketball – From Belgium to Belmar: Hodge Brothers Star in St. Rose Opener
BELMAR -- Matthew Hodge has played high-level basketball in his native Belgium, but the energy in the McCann Activities and Athletic Center at St. Rose High School Thursday night was something the Class of 2024 transfer has not experienced much, if at all, in his basketball travels.
As unique as the surroundings were during his new St. Rose team's season-opener vs. Red Bank Catholic, Hodge got to do something rare for him on the court as well: play with his younger brother.
While Matt eased into the start of his junior season at St. Rose, freshman Jayden Hodge stole the show with a game-high 22 points as the Purple Roses -- ranked No. 2 in the Shore Sports Network Preseason Top 10 -- fought off a tough test from the visiting Caseys to get their anticipated season off on a winning note.
"There were some butterflies," Matthew Hodge said. "Seeing the student section and the gym packed -- to be honest, I never saw that in Belgium like that. There is a lot of noise and the game is close, so it was a new experience. There were some first-game nerves, so it was good to get them out and come out with the win."
The Hodge brothers are two of six transfers on St. Rose's roster, three of whom are eligible to open the season. Jayden Hodge, Matthew Hodge and sophomore Bryan Eberling -- an international transfer from Italy -- combined to score 38 of the 42 St. Rose points on Thursday, with Jayden Hodge accounting for more than half the total.
Jayden Hodge scored eight points in the first quarter and 14 in the second half, including a 6-for-6 showing from the free-throw line after halftime. In the second half alone, the freshman had a game-tying layup, two go-ahead field goals and a pair of go-ahead free throws.
"He saved us today," Matthew Hodge said of his brother. "My offensive game was kind of off and the shots weren't really falling for some of our other guys, so he stepped up big-time as a freshman."
Hodge hit a floater in the lane to give St. Rose the lead for good at 32-30. Matthew Hodge followed with a strong move to the basket that netted him a three-point play after he drew the foul, made the layup and hit the free throw for a 35-30 lead.
Red Bank Catholic chipped its deficit to 37-36 with 3:01 left on a three-pointer by junior Colin Cavanaugh, who led the Caseys with 15 points. Jayden Hodge followed by hitting both ends of a 1-and-1, which RBC answered with two free throws by junior center Tyler Burnham.
Once again, Jayden Hodge sank two ends of a 1-and-1, followed by another RBC answer in the form of a drive by junior Luke Iasparro to make it 41-40.
Matthew Hodge did not have the same success as his brother at the free throw line, where the junior missed a pair to give the Caseys a chance to take the lead. Cavanaugh, however, missed the front-end of a 1-and-1 with 23.5 seconds left, followed by Ebeling hitting one of two from the line to make it 42-40 with 18 seconds left.
On the final possession, Cavanaugh shook off Ebeling with the dribble and got a wide-open look at a three-pointer from the top of the key. The shot came up just short and the tip-in attempt by Burnham rimmed out, with the ball caroming out of bounds as time expired.
"We started off with high expectations: six new transfers, European players coming in," said Matthew Hodge, who finished his St. Rose debut with nine points, 12 rebounds and three blocks. "So there was a lot of hype coming in, this early in the season. My start was kind of not good, to be honest, but I'm just happy that we started off the season good."
St. Rose escaped with a win despite struggling to cross the 40-point threshold, which included nearly going scoreless for the second quarter. After taking a 14-7 lead with just under two minutes left in the first, St. Rose went nine minutes without scoring, but kept Red Bank Catholic to 11 points during the same stretch and pulled to within 18-17 at halftime when Ebeling broke the drought with a three-pointer.
"We're still missing three players that we're going to get back, so I'm just happy we got the win. Everybody played well together, we played good defense, offense didn't go the way we wanted it to, but that's okay because we played defense."
Among the three transfers who will join the St. Rose rotation as early as Jan. 14 is junior Gioacchino Panzini, who played his first two high-school seasons at Red Bank Catholic. Panzini is one of five starters that Red Bank Catholic lost from last year's South Jersey Non-Pubic A runner-up and Shore Conference Tournament semifinalist team -- two of whom transferred out of the program.
The Caseys regularly played 10 players last season, which should help ease the transition, if Thursday is any indication. Burnham and Cavanaugh were starters for short stretches last year, sophomore Ryan Prior made big shots off the bench and junior point guard Luke Iasparro got varsity time a year ago as well.
The lone new player to suit up for RBC on Thursday was Rumson-Fair Haven transfer Pasquale Sabino, who scored only three points, but filled up the stat sheet with, six rebounds, six assists and two blocks while also matching up with Matthew Hodge for much of his RBC debut.
While St. Rose waits on the three transfers -- Panzini, Evan Romano (Holmde) and Peter Mauro (Gill St. Bernard's) -- the Purple Roses turned to senior Jackson Gordon and freshman Tyler Cameron as starters, with senior Luke Roman and junior Matt Alexis providing some minutes off the bench.
Head coach Brian Lynch will mix and match for the first month of the season until Jan. 14, when the trio of transfers will first be eligible for a Saturday game against Keyport. In the meantime, the Purple Roses may look to grind out more wins like the one that opened up their season.
"We know as a team, if we play good defense, the chance of winning is higher than if you focus on offense first," Matthew Hodge said. "Defense is big for us, so if we keep playing as a team, especially on defense, I think we'll be fine."