HIGHLANDS -- As if the NJSIAA Tournament does not provide challenging enough competition, the Henry Hudson boys basketball team faced a juxtaposition heading into an anticipated postseason.

The Admirals entered the Central Jersey Group I Playoffs with 19 wins and the No. 1 seed in the section, yet they remain the ultimate underdog based on a recent history that includes scattered, minor success and a whole lot of losing in the years leading up to 2023-24.

Even their current season has included a pile of wins over small -- in some cases ever obscure -- programs, not to mention two losses to teams that finished with losing records.

What has sustained Henry Hudson through it all is the Admirals know who they are and they are taking nothing for granted as the season hangs in the balance night-in and night-out, which it did Tuesday at Henry Hudson High School against the defending Central Group champions from Eagle Academy of Newark.

Facing a five-point deficit with under two minutes to go, the Admirals clawed back to tie the game and finished with an overtime flurry to pull out a 49-43 thriller over eighth-seeded Eagle Academy -- their most memorable win of their most memorable season since the 1980's.

"We never lost hope," said junior Jack Fitzpatrick, who led Henry Hudson with 18 points and hit a pair of free throws in the final minute that sent the game into overtime. "We kept going, we thought we could win and we did. We all believed in each other and so have the coaches, the fans, the community. With all the support, it all comes together in a game like this and I'm just really glad we got the win."

"We went from not being in state games and not being competitive in most of our state games to having the one seed," said fourth-year coach Brian Kelly, who went a combined 5-25 in his first two seasons before taking a step forward at 12-13 last year and a giant leap this season. "We had a monkey on our back going into our first state game against Highland Park and there were definitely some nerves, but I saw such a change after that first win. We had the best couple days of practice of the year, which is what you want at this time of year, obviously."

After notching its 21st win of the year, Henry Hudson will try to keep its breakthrough season going past Thursday, when the Admirals host fifth-seeded Manville with a chance for Henry Hudson to host the sectional final on the line. It will be Henry Hudson's first appearance in a sectional semifinal since 1997.

"We have always been the underdog, so we have just carried that mindset into everything," Fitzpatrick said. "Don't get cocky and don't think you can roll over anybody. Just stay humble, stay working and stay confident. That's worked for us."

That opportunity seemed to be slipping away in the waning minutes of Tuesday's game against an Eagle Academy squad that won the 2023 Central Group I title as a No. 1 seed with a much different cast, but with a group that gained confidence as the game wore on.

Henry Hudson junior Jack Fitzpatrick. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Henry Hudson junior Jack Fitzpatrick. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)

Zaqai James hit a foul-line jumper to tie the game at 30, at which point Eagle hit Henry Hudson with a 7-2 burst. James stole the ball and laid it in for a 33-30 lead, followed by a bank shot in the lane from Fitzpatrick to pull the Admirals within 33-32.

Al-Zayhir Al-Qadir, who scored a game-high 19 points, answered with a floater off the window to push the visitors' lead to 35-32 and Yasin Collins then scored on a putback to put Eagle ahead, 37-32 with 1:50 left.

Freshman JoJo Newell came through with several huge baskets in the fourth quarter and overtime and the two biggest were his layups on back-to-back possessions with his team trailing in the last two minutes. The first of those was off a feed from junior Kevin Pharo to make it 37-34 and after Al-Qadir hit 1-of-2 free throws, Newell scored off an offensive rebound to pull the Admirals within 38-36 with 56 seconds left.

Henry Hudson got the break it needed when Eagle missed a pair of free throws and Fitzpatrick earned a trip to the free-throw line with 29.5 seconds left. The junior guard and 1,000-point scorer was 1-for-4 from the line on the night at that point, but came through with two makes to tie the game, 38-38.

"I blessed myself before that one," Fitzpatrick joked, referring to his earlier struggles at the line. "Yeah, I just locked in, focused and knew what was at stake. I practice it a lot, so I'm happy with the way it worked out."

Al-Qadir got off a quality shot going to the basket on the ensuing possession, but the attempt went off the backboard, around the rim and out, followed by an immediate timeout by Kelly with one second left.

Senior Jeremy Way's baseball pass on the inbound hit the extension of the ceiling, giving Eagle one last chance from underneath the Henry Hudson basket with one second left. Fitzpatrick defended the shot, which missed the basket structure and pushed the game into overtime.

After an empty possession by each team to start overtime, Henry Hudson hit the accelerator. Sophomore Michael Fitzpatrick dealt the defending champions the first blow with a three-pointer from the left wing, then Newell scored off another find by Pharo to make it 43-38.

"Coach (Kelly) said in one of the huddles at the end of the fourth quarter that if we get it to overtime, we know we're going to win the game," Jack Fitzpatrick said. "That's exactly what we did. We believed in each other and just played our basketball."

Al-Qadir found Maurice Moseley for a layup to keep Eagle Academy in it, but Newell came right back with another layup off a pass from Pharo to bump the lead back up to 45-40. Pharo then finished the next score off a pass from sophomore Billy Quinn to make it 47-40 and put Henry Hudson on the brink of advancing.

Jack Fitzpatrick put the game away with a steal and a pair of free throws to give the Admirals a 49-40 lead -- the largest of the game for either team.

"We didn't take Highland Park lightly in the first round and we definitely didn't take the defending champs coming here lightly," said Kelly, whose father, Larry Kelly, was on three straight Henry Hudson sectional championship teams from 1969 to 1971. "That's a hell of a team. They are physical. Those kids can play and it was a flat-out battle. I'm just proud our guys. We didn't back down and there were moments where we could have folded and we didn't. I think it was a combination of their confidence and they are loving this. The atmosphere, the town, everybody is into it. It's been a long time and nobody wants this ride to stop."

Newell backed up Fitzpatrick's 18 points with 14 points, nine rebounds, four steals and two blocked shots, with 10 of his points coming in the fourth quarter and overtime.

"JoJo has been our x-factor this year in us taking the leap that we have," Kelly said. "As a freshman, you never know what you are going to get. We knew we had something good in the long term, but there is a lot that goes into a freshman being successful at the varsity level. His motor is one of the best I have ever seen, he's got a great attitude and he shows up every day."

(Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
(Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)

Pharo also came through with six points, nine rebounds, three assists and two blocks for Henry Hudson.

"Those bigs are super physical and they get a lot of stuff off the glass and off those dump-offs," Kelly said. "I thought we did a really good job on the boards, and not only on the defensive end. We had some huge offensive rebounds and putback down the stretch that go us to overtime and then sealed the deal in overtime. They are just high-energy guys who use their bodies well and I thought their help defense was great too. All-around, I thought those two guys (Newell and Pharo) played a great game."

Of Fitzpatrick's team-high 18 points, 13 came after halftime, at which point Eagle Academy led, 16-13, following a first-half that featured 20 combined turnovers by the two teams. Henry Hudson committed 11 of them, but found its rhythm in the third quarter and outscored Eagle, 15-10, to take a 28-26 lead heading to the fourth.

Henry Hudson junior Kevin Pharo. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Henry Hudson junior Kevin Pharo. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)

"They are a physical team so we had to adjust a little bit and once we adjusted, we were solid," Jack Fitzpatrick said. "We still had too many turnovers in the second half too, but we played good basketball overall in the second half."

Henry Hudson will next host a Manville team that won at David Brealey Tuesday, 46-34, after getting handled by Brearley at home, 49-32, exactly one month earlier on Jan. 27. Like Henry Hudson, Manville is emerging from a long stretch of losing that is longer than what even Henry Hudson has endured. The Mustangs have won an NJSIAA Tournament in each of the past two seasons, but this season will be Manville's first winning season in well over a decade.

Henry Hudson, meanwhile, is in the midst of its first winning season since 2016, which includes its first Shore Conference division championship since 1988-89 and its first state-tournament win since 2016 as well. The Admirals are in search of their first NJSIAA Central Group I title since 1981, although that is a far-fetched goal considering the No. 3 seed in the section, College Achieve of Asbury Park, is currently the No. 12 team in the state, according to NJ Advance Media, and rosters multiple Division-I-level players.

Henry Hudson sophomore Michael Fitzpatrick. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Henry Hudson sophomore Michael Fitzpatrick. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)

College Achieve has been the dark cloud hanging over the heads of any and all of the Group I hopefuls, like Henry Hudson and second-seeded Shore Regional, the latter of which will host College Achieve Thursday in the other sectional semifinal. College Achieve is only in its first year as a varsity program, but under the direction of former Roselle Catholic coach Dave Boff, the Knights are loaded with transfers from around the state and have knocked off the likes of Group II contender Middle Township and Non-Public A power St. Peter's Prep.

Henry Hudson was fortunate enough to earn the No. 1 seed and slot in on the side of the bracket opposite College Achieve, which gives the Admirals a legitimate chance to host a sectional final.

"We knew we got a good draw as far as avoiding Achieve until the final, but it's the state tournament, so you have to just play the game in front of you," Kelly said. "If we have to play College Achieve, then that's a good problem to have. That's the way we're looking at it."

"We always think we can go all the way, that's just how we are," Fitzpatrick said. "We have a tough one coming up next, so that's all we're focused on right now."

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