Boys Basketball – Revitalized Colts Neck Hosts Surging Trenton in CJ 4 Final
Central Jersey Group IV Championship
Monday, March 5, 7 p.m.
No. 7 Trenton (21-7) at No. 1 Colts Neck (19-7)
Trenton Road to the Final: Defeated No. 10 East Brunswick, 59-49; No. 2 Hunterdon Central, 63-58 in overtime; No. 3 Hightstown, 70-56.
Colts Neck Road to the Final: Defeated No. 16 Monroe, 74-66, in overtime; No. 9 Middletown South, 57-48; No. 5 Montgomery, 58-40.
Most coaches want their players feeling good about themselves heading into the NJSIAA Tournament, but that was not the hand veteran coach Lou Piccola and his Colts Neck team were dealt during the week between the Shore Conference and state tournaments.
In fact, not only were the Cougars beaten down mentally by a three-game losing streak; they were beaten down physically in the form of an ankle injury to starting senior forward Zach Albom.
According to Piccola, his team did not become resigned or defeated or apprehensive. Instead, they just got angry.
For the next three games, Colts Neck turned that anger into effort, stringing together wins over Monroe, Middletown South and Montgomery, with each win growing increasingly more convincing. It took overtime to get past a sharp-shooting, 16th-seeded Monroe and a fourth-quarter kick to put Middletown South away, but the Cougars found their complete game in Saturday’s 58-40 win over fifth-seeded Montgomery.
“It wasn’t so much losing in the Shore Conference Tournament (to Point Beach), but the two games in between that changed things for us,” Piccola said. “We give up a late lead at Point Boro and lose a starter to an injury and then we had to get up the next day and go play Long Branch with (senior Tyree Morris) celebrating his 1,000th point. After losing those games, I think our kids just got (angry). They weren’t happy with the way the week went and our practices before the tournament started have been really intense.”
The Cougars began the season on an eight-game winning streak and then went 8-7 over their next 15 before the start of the Central Jersey Group IV tournament. For the first time since that hots start, Colts Neck is back at the top of its game following a sectional semifinal win Piccola graded as his team’s best defensive effort of the season.
On top of Colts Neck’s inspired play on Saturday, the team also got back Albom, who played sparingly, but is now available heading into Monday night’s sectional final against Trenton. Senior Mike Federici and junior Brian Hill have been the two foremost contributors in replacing Albom’s minutes over the first three games of the tournament.
Senior Danny Gaines has been Colts Neck’s leading scorer during the tournament at 17 points per game, including 22 in the win over Montgomery. Senior Ben Bosland, meanwhile, has elevated his play to the level it was at during the beginning of the season. The senior point guard is averaging 15.3 points while staying engaged on the boards and on defense, in addition to running the point in the half court.
Forward Rob Hill, guard Sabour Quddus and Federici round out the all-senior starting lineup that Colts Neck has sported during the tournament, with Albom potentially adding a different senior to the mix.
Like Colts Neck, Trenton boasts a balanced lineup of players, led by 6-1 senior Ji’Ayir Brown. In 28 games this year, Brown is averaging 12.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and an eye-popping 6.9 steals per game for a havoc-inducing Trenton defense. Junior Reggie James joined the lineup in February and is averaging 13.2 points over 10 games, while junior guard Elijah Kelly is averaging seven points, 6.7 assists and three steals.
In Trenton’s 70-56 win over Mercer County rival Hightstown in Saturday’s sectional semifinal, it was 6-6 senior Nichus Jackson leading the way with 20 points and 14 rebounds.
The balanced scoring is about the only similarity between the two opponents squaring off Monday night in Colts Neck. The Cougars don’t have any player with Jackson’s size and the athleticism advantage is decidedly in Trenton’s favor. Colts Neck will instead rely on its execution in the half court and a focus on controlling the tempo of the game – which the Cougars hope will be a deliberate, possession-by-possession affair.
“We don’t have anyone taller than 6-3 and none of our guys can really get off the ground,” Piccola said. “We know what we are and we know how we want to play. We have to share the ball, limit turnovers, talk on defense, box out and control the tempo. If it gets to be an up-and-down game and they are jumping over us for rebounds, it could be a long night. If we take care of what we need to take care of, we like our chances.”
On top of establishing tempo, Colts Neck will have to be persistent. Trenton is still playing thanks to an improbable comeback against defending sectional champion Hunterdon Central in which the Tornadoes erased a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit on the road and beat the Red Devils in overtime.
The Cougars will be playing in their second sectional final in three years and fourth in the last eight. Colts Neck won its first sectional championship two years ago by beating Freehold Township at the buzzer.
Trenton meanwhile, is a tradition-rich program that has won one sectional championship in the last decade, which was the Central Jersey Group IV championship in 2014. In that time, Trenton is just 1-4 against teams from the Shore Conference.
That 1-5 stretch includes a loss at Colts Neck in 2012, when the Cougars were also the No. 1 seed. Colts Neck beat Trenton, 95-87, in the sectional quarterfinals en route to a sectional final appearance, which the Cougars lost to Middletown North.
The loss to Middletown North was the second of two consecutive sectional final losses by the Cougars, who exorcised their postseason demons in 2016 when Brendan Clarke beat the buzzer to give Colts Neck a one-point win over Freehold Township and the program’s first sectional title. That team also lost at home in the Shore Conference Tournament round of 16 and stumbled into the state tournament. It also wound up playing all four games in the sectional playoffs at home and running the table.
“It’s a different group, but we have guys were there for that run watching those guys,” Piccola said. “At this time of year, there are no secrets. You go out, you execute and if the ball goes in the basket, you win the game. Two years ago, it went in. In some other years, it didn’t. If they (Trenton) miss some shots and we can execute our plan, maybe it happens again.”