Boys Basketball – Shore Falls Just Short of CJ 1 Title in Loss to Newark’s Eagle Academy
NEWARK -- As he watched his team scratch and claw trying to win the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group I championship Monday night at Weequahic High School, Shore Regional coach Erik Mazur was waiting on that one big shot to fall for his team -- the kind of shot the host and top seed, Eagle Academy got to fall on a few occasions.
Even as it looked like that shot might not necessarily come, the Blue Devils were still a bounce of the ball from winning their first sectional championship in eight years.
That shot never came and Eagle Academy made enough free throws and defensive stands down the stretch to wrap up a 43-39 victory over Shore, capturing the six-year-old program's first ever NJSIAA sectional championship Monday night.
"That was one of our hardest battles this year," Eagle Academy senior Asan Jones said of Monday's showdown with Shore. "They were a well-constructed, well-coached team and you could tell they definitely wanted it. They stuck together as a team, but I felt like our heart and talent showed that we were better."
To be clear, the Shore duo of Alex George and Liam Gajewski hit several shots in the fourth quarter -- all of them in the paint and four of them to cut Eagle Academy's lead to one point. In looking for the three-pointer, three-point play, or big defense-to-offense swing play, those belonged to the team from the all-boys school in Newark, and they made the difference.
"We have had a knack for hitting that shot," Mazur said. "Brick Memorial in the Shore Conference Tournament, Donny Hughes hits two big threes in the third quarter to open it up for us. Brett Sweeney has hit big shots. Liam Gajewski has hit big shots all year. We had it and it just felt like we were one shot away from getting the momentum to tip the game in our favor and we just weren't able to finish it.
"I'm super proud, though. This is my 23rd year as a coach and my 17th year as a head coach and this is not typical, every-year thing. I wanted to win so badly for they players. It's such a great opportunity to experience and with how awesome this senior group has been, I really would have loved to see them get this tonight. But we'll be back."
The first one was at the end of the first half -- a three-pointer by senior Tae'Jean Wilson at the second-quarter buzzer off a crosscourt pass from classmate Marcus Blount to send the Eagles into the halftime locker room with a 20-17 lead.
Then, there was a corner three-pointer by senior Tymir Ashford -- the long bench points of the game for either team -- that extended Eagle's lead to 34-29 with five minutes left after Shore had pulled within two.
In the final minute, it was the defense from Jones, who jumped a pass near midcourt with his team leading by two, stole the ball and earned a trip to the free-throw line with 12.3 seconds left. Making his second trip to the line for two shots in as many possessions, Jones hit the second of two free throws on each of the trips, with the latter one putting Eagle Academy ahead, 40-37.
"We're up and when we want to get a stop, we really try our best to deny," Jones said. "You want to get in your man, make sure he doesn't get the ball and just have that heart and mentality to want to win. I feel like we had that all game."
"I thought we did a good job handling their pressure," said Mazur, whose team won the turnover battle, 9-7, but forced only one Eagle Academy turnover in the second half. "We had the one turnover late and I thought there was some contact, but that's just me. We 20 seconds in the game, not many officials are going to call that. We've been pretty sound not turning the ball over and running good sets and we got a lot of the shots we wanted to get and some of them just didn't drop."
Jones had one more dagger of a shot in his bag and it was one he might have held onto had he a chance to do it over again. Shore senior Brett Sweeney had just buried two free throws with eight seconds left to cut the deficit to 40-39 and Blount was heading to the line with 6.2 left to try to push the lead to three. Either way, Shore figured to at least have a chance to tie the game and possibly to win it, as long as the Blue Devils could secure the rebound.
That was easier said than done Monday against the Eagles, and Jones lifted off for the biggest offensive rebound of the game when, after Blount made the first free throw, he zeroed in on Blount's miss on the second try, pulled it in and decided to go for the kill.
Conventional basketball wisdom would have had Jones either hold onto the ball and wait to be fouled, dribble it out to the perimeter, or find an open teammate away from the swarm of Shore defenders to run out the remaining seconds. Instead, after missing two of his last four free throws and two points from clinching the game, Jones reacted as he normally would and went right back up with a shot, getting the putback to drop as he fell toward the ground.
When Jones regained his balance, his team led by four and he was fully aware that his team had made history for its young school.
"They still might have thought they had a chance there if they could get the ball back and I didn't want to risk it again at the free throw line," Jones said. "I was just like, 'You know what, I'm going to shoot it. If I make it, that's game. And that was game."
Jones led Eagle Academy's balanced attack with 11 points, while Blount and Wilson each added 10 -- with all 10 of Wilson's points coming in the first half. Shore took Eagle's leading scorer on the season out of the game in the second half, when the 6-foot-5 swing went 0-for-5 from the floor and 0-for-2 from the line.
Senior Choice Dousuah also scored nine points for Eagle Academy, which did not give up the lead after Wilson's go-ahead three to end the first half.
"Some of the things we are good at -- spacing the floor with our guards and going to work driving and kicking -- were tough to take advantage of because of how long and athletic they were," Mazur said of Eagle's lineup. "They did a good job keeping guys in front. I don't think we have seen a team that's as athletic across the board as they were. Toms River North was close and it was a similar type of game."
The championship is a first for an Eagle Academy program that is one year removed from a 5-18 season in 2021-22 and leaned on a senior-heavy group that is up to 25 wins and counting heading into its Group I semifinal against South Jersey champion Woodbury Wednesday night at Brick Memorial High School.
"I have been part of this organization for four years and from freshman year until this year, we have always had the mindset that this was going to be our year," Jones said. "After last year, everyone counted us out. We have been underdogs all year and we keep showing that we can play with the best of them."
George and Gajewski were borderline heroic in keeping Shore within striking distance. George scored a game-high 16 points to go with five rebounds three assists and two steals to lead the Blue Devils, while Gajewski scored six of his 11 points in the fourth quarter while grabbing 11 rebounds. Shore went through a stretch late in the fourth quarter in which George and Gajewski scored fourth consecutive Shore baskets that cut Eagle Academy's lead to one point, but could not get the go-ahead or tying basket.
George picked up his second foul early in the second quarter and in the time he left the game, Shore went from leading, 15-12, to trailing, 16-15.
Senior Donovan Hughes also added eight points and five rebounds for Shore, which will graduate five of the seven players who saw the floor from them Monday: Gajewski, Hughes, Sweeney and fellow starter Ben Levy, as well as Richie Studer. Although he came off the bench Monday, Studer was a starter for much of the 2022-23 season when not saddled by injury.
"When, this group came in four years ago, we really built around this and knew that when they were seniors, we were going to have a really good opportunity to be in this spot," Mazur said. "We're super disappointed we didn't get it, but this is only the fourth time we have been to this game in 63 years of Shore Regional, so hopefully we can become a program that can be in this position -- finals or semifinals of the section -- every year.
"I feel for the seniors because they were fantastic. They bought into everything we said, they were awesome to coach and we're just going to miss them. They brought us this far and we just thanked them for everything they did."
That will leave Shore with a team led by George in 2023-24, and while there will not be a lot off experience around him, Mazur is expecting big things from the athletic 6-1 guard and optimistic the supporting cast around him will come along quickly.
"Alex is a solid, very cerebral kid," Mazur said. "He is very business-like. He doesn't get rattled. I'm glad he's only a junior. He has gotten some much physically stronger and bigger and this was his type of game. He is a kid who can get to the rim and finish. He did a fantastic job today and I thought all the kids did. They showed up, on the road, in this type of atmosphere and I thought they did a great job."