RUMSON - 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 and why the Bulldogs will feel confident heading into their second consecutive home sectional championship game on Monday. They broke open a tie game with four minutes to go and defeated No. 4 seed Bordentown, 59-49, to earn a home date vs. No. 3 Carteret on Monday.

Rumson junior Ian O'Connor. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Rumson junior Ian O'Connor. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

"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 have any off days. Games like today 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.

Wheeler gave Rumson the lead for good with a two-handed putback slam on a missed three-pointer by senior Teddy Sourlis, making it 46-44 with four minutes left. Wheeler that dribbled into the lane for a spinning finish to stretch the lead to four, followed by a three-pointer by Sourlis the extend the Rumson lead to 51-44.

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.

O'Connor and senior point guard Devin Cooper each went 3-for-4 from the free-throw line during the run as well.

Bordentown authored a momentum-swinging run of its own on Saturday to turn what appeared to be a comfortable Rumson lead into a close affair. Trailing 29-18 late in the second quarter, the Scotties scored the final 10 points of the first half and the first six of the second to complete a 16-0 run that swung an 11-point deficit into a five-point lead early in the third.

The 10 points at the end of the first half all came from three-pointers, including a four-point play by Jaedan Sheehan in the final seconds of the second quarter. During the first half, Rumson outscored the Scotties despite shooting 1-for-13 from three-point range while Bordentown shot 7-for-20 in the half.

Rumson grabbed the 29-18 lead with a 7-0 run highlighted by a powerful one-handed dunk by Wheeler.

"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."

The tide turned slightly in the second half, mostly in the form of misses by Bordentown. Rumson shot 3-for-15 in the second half to complete a forgettable 4-for-28 performance from beyond the arc, but the Bulldogs held Bordentown to 1-for-11 in the second half and 8-for-31 for the game.

Bordentown's reliance on the three-point shot might have had something to do with Rumson-Fair Haven senior center Elijah McAllister, who racked up seven blocks while also grabbing 15 rebounds, dishing out six assists and dropping in four points.

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, Cartert 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.

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."


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