Boys Basketball – Rumson Aims for 2nd Straight CJ 2 Title Monday Night
Central Jersey Group II Championship
Monday, March 5, 7 p.m.
No. 3 Carteret (23-6) at No. 1 Rumson-Fair Haven (24-2)
Carteret Road to the Final: Defeated No. 14 Hillside, 67-45; No. 6 A.L. Johnson, 70-55; No. 10 Lincoln, 46-45
Rumson Road to the Final: Defeated No. 16 North Plainfield, 71-47; No. 8 Spotswood, 71-63; No. 4 Bordentown, 59-49
From the first day of practice in November, the Rumson-Fair Haven boys basketball team had one regular-season goal in mind: win enough games to earn home-court advantage in the NJSIAA Tournament.
Of course, the end goal for the defending NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II champion was always to repeat, but the means to that end was to make sure it would not have to leave the cozy confines of its gym, where the Bulldogs are 13-1 this season.
Rumson - the top seed in Central Jersey Group II - showed once again how tough it is to win in Rumson Saturday with a 59-49 win over Bordentown and why the Bulldogs will feel confident heading into their second consecutive home sectional championship game on Monday against third-seeded Carteret.
"Our whole regular season was about earning the opportunity to play a sectional championship game in our building," Rumson coach Chris Champeau said. "We have a real home-court advantage here. We shoot better, the crowd gets into it, so we put an emphasis on every practice and every game because if you want to get home court, you can’t have any off days. Games like (Saturday) are why we put all that work in and these guys earned a chance to win another championship in this gym."
Junior Ian O'Connor led the Bulldogs with 23 points and 10 rebounds on Saturday, while sophomore Phillip Wheeler added 10 and eight and ignited a game-changing 13-0 run that turned a 44-44 game with just over four minutes to go into a 57-44 Bulldogs lead with under 1:30 left.
O’Connor, Wheeler and 6-foot-7 senior Elijah McAllister – who put up four points, 15 rebounds, six assits and five blocks on Saturday – have become the core of the team during this postseason, just as they were in the semifinal win.
Senior Teddy Sourlis was the team’s leading scorer last year and stepped up when his team needed him in the win over Bordentown. Sourlis finished the game with 12 points and five rebounds and helped get Rumson's perimeter game going in the second half with three three-pointers after halftime.
Rumson’s seven-man rotation also includes seniors Jack Solano and Devin Cooper, as well as junior Jackson McCarthy. All three have had big games and big moments during Rumson’s run to an undefeated Class A Central record, the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals and now a second straight sectional final.
Sourlis, Solano and O’Connor were instrumental in leading Rumson to its first sectional title since 1973 in 2016-17, while McCarthy gave the Bulldogs some strong minutes off the bench as a sophomore. McAllister could only watch after sustaining a season-ending knee injury in early February, while Wheeler was a raw freshman who watched from the bench. Cooper, meanwhile, transferred to Rumson before this season after playing three years at rival Red Bank Regional.
With McAllister, Wheeler and Cooper in the fold and McCarthy taking on a larger role, Rumson has become a more athletic team that boasts a different identity than the one it established in winning the CJ II title last year and the Shore Conference Tournament title two years earlier.
On Saturday, Rumson shot 4-for-28 from three-point range while giving up eight three-pointers on the other end. That disparity coupled by the poor shooting performance likely would have doomed the Bulldogs in years past, but this team was able to overcome it thanks to a dominant defensive performance by McAllister around the rim and a relentless effort by O’Connor in both getting to the basket and working the offensive glass.
Wheeler also swung the momentum of the game with two plays that would not have been on a Rumson highlight reel in years past. He took off from the middle of the lane for a one-handed slam during a 7-0 second-quarter run and later scored on a putback dunk to give his team the lead for good.
"Nothing gets the crowd going like a dunk and Wheels does some unbelievable stuff," O'Connor said. "He basically took off from the free throw line and when you see him dunk on a guy like that and the crowd's into, you can't help but pick up the intensity."
In Carteret, Rumson will face an opponent that is 0-3 vs. Shore Conference teams this season. The Ramblers lost to Mater Dei Prep in late January and dropped Husky Christmas Classic games to both Ocean and Manalapan in late December.
Now that the stakes are at their highest, however, Carteret has raised its game, most recently to beat Lincoln, 46-45, in the sectional semifinals. Lincoln took out both Manasquan and Matawan in its first two tournament games and also has a regular-season win over a St. Peter's Prep team that handed Rumson its only loss at home.
Those losses to Ocean and Manalapan were part of a 1-3 stretch in December that accounted for half of Carteret’s losses all season. Since then, the Ramblers have gone 19-3 with their only losses coming to Mater Dei, St. Joseph of Metuchen at the buzzer in the GMC Tournament semifinals, and to Piscataway in a tune-up game before the start of the NJSIAA Tournament.
Senior guard Isaiah Daniels-Porter leads Carteret into battle averaging 18.6 points and 7.3 rebounds. The Ramblers also have two other players averaging in double-figure scoring, with junior Jahlil Nix putting up 13 per game and 6-5 freshman Malik Austin averaging 10.3 in 23 games.
Regardless of which version of Carteret shows up in Rumson on Monday, the fact they the Ramblers are coming to Rumson is all that matters to the Bulldogs at this point.
"Playing at home is a huge factor," O'Connor said. "We love playing here and we feel like we can beat anyone who comes in here. Last year, it made a big difference, especially late in the game and it was a factor again today. We're all looking forward to it."