PISCATAWAY -- Brian Lynch got a phone call after finishing his first season as the boys basketball head coach at St. Rose High School, where he led the Purple Roses to a respectable 12-11 record against a challenging schedule during the 2021-22 season.

It was from his good friend, Odell Hodge and the purpose of the call came down to five short words. As unspecific as Hodge's words were, Lynch knew what they meant.

"Help is on the way."

The "help" Hodge was referring two were his two sons, Matt and Jayden, and after growing up in Belgium, where Lynch and Hodge became close friends as former professional players, the two brothers were ready to make the move across the Atlantic Ocean and test themselves in the jungle that is youth basketball in the United States.

Just as Odell had promised when Lynch moved back to the U.S., if Lynch ever coached a high school team, the Hodge brothers would play for that team.

That team was St. Rose and less than two years after Lynch got that text, the Purple Roses likely just cemented their case as the No. 1 team in New Jersey with a 73-29 dismantling of Immaculate Conception of Montclair Friday in the Non-Public B championship game at Jersey Mike's Arena.

Game Highlights: St. Rose vs. Montclair Immaculate

“I didn’t expect this when I got hired," said Lynch, who just competed his third season as head coach at St. Rose. "I just gave the Hodge father a big hug and thanked him because it really all began with him. It was a phone call and he just said, ‘Help is on the way.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said: ‘Don’t worry. Help is on the way.’ He wasn’t lying."

St. Rose had not won an overall state championship since 1977 and prior to last season, had not played in a state final since 2004. In the two seasons with Matt and Jayden Hodge on the team, the Purple Roses have played in two state finals and on Friday, they finished off a 29-win season with what could very well have been their best performance as a team in 2023-24.

"I think anybody who saw us at the beginning of last year, there were some question marks about what we were going to be like," Lynch said. "We were a little bit shaky. It wasn’t as clean, but I think where we are standing right now, we have been the most dominant team in the last several games of the season, by far, because of the connectedness, the togetherness, the chemistry and the commitment to the high-level of energy on the defensive side. This is the result of guys buying into it.

"We also have the players that can make it happen and that’s what it’s all about. I’m not going to let them play a different defense than I did the first year when we were 12-11. We just have guys that bring it out to a higher level."

Friday's win also eases the pain of losing the final game of last season on the same floor -- a nine-point loss to Roselle Catholic in the Non-Public B final at Rutgers. Last year's St. Rose team lost just five games all year, but coming up short in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinal to Ranney, then losing to Roselle Catholic with a state title on the line was fuel for the Purple Roses all season long.

"Losing that way was bitter for us and it was hard," Matt Hodge said. "We learned from that experience and to get that was a big step for where we ended up."

Matt Hodge -- one of three seniors in St. Rose's eight-man rotation -- closed out his high-school career with 14 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and three blocked shots. The first of those blocks came within the first minute of the game and set a defensive tone that St. Rose would honor the rest of the way and that suffocated Montclair Immaculate for 32 minutes.

One of the other seniors, Gio Panzini, led the St. Rose block party with five, which was part of an all-around effort from the 6-foot-6 wing that also included a game-high 16 points and nine rebounds. St. Rose blocked 10 shots as a team.

"He must have changed eight shots," Lynch said of Matt Hodge. "When you have a player as good as (Montclair Immaculate senior and Louisville commit) T.J. Robinson, who gets to the rim, and you have Matt back there just constantly challenging without fouling, it’s textbook."

"Even if we don’t get a block, it’s still affecting the shot," Panzini said. "Even I know what it’s like when you’ve got a big guy down there. It changes the shot just a little bit and it can mess up the whole shot. It’s really nice have me and Matt there, and even Jay sometimes, contesting shots and it really helps over the long run."

Jayden Hodge completed his sophomore season with a stellar two-way performance of his own. The 6-5 guard scored 15 points, grabbed eight rebounds, handed out three assists and hounded Robinson into a 2-for-15 shooting night with five points.

Junior Bryan Ebeling also cracked double-figure scoring with 12 points and five rebounds, while junior Evan Romano chipped in seven points and four assists.

The 29 points allowed by St. Rose marks the fourth time this season the Purple Roses have held an opponent to under 30 points and second time in a championship game. St. Rose held Manasquan to 27 points in the Shore Conference Tournament final on Feb. 18, which was the first ever SCT championship for the Purple Roses.

"It doesn’t matter where we are, the No. 1 thing is defense," Panzini said. "That’s what is going to help you win championships. If don’t have a good offensive night, you can fall back on your defense and hold them to under however many points, you’re going to win both games."

Along with the 29 points, St. Rose held Montclair Immaculate to 20 percent shooting from the field (11-for-54) and outrebounded the Lions, 47-22.

"That’s an excellent team on the other side and to hold those guys to 29 points, it’s one of the best defensive efforts I have ever seen in high school," Lynch said. "We were state champs my junior year (at Christian Brothers Academy in 1995) and we never played defense like that. That was insane. I’m just really proud of the guys, really happy to be a part of this special moment."

Unlike the SCT final, which ended with a 48-27 final score, St. Rose brought its A-game on offense too. The Purple Roses shot 55 percent from the field (29-for-53) and 41 percent from beyond the three-point line (9-for-22).

The only offensive shortcomings -- or shortcomings of any kind for St. Rose -- were its 15 turnovers and 6-for-10 performance at the free-throw line. Despite giving away the ball 15 times, St. Rose allowed Montclair Immaculate to score only five points off of those turnovers.

After a season full of lopsided wins and abbreviated outings for its best players, St. Rose put the pedal to the metal early on and kept its foot on the gas until the three-minute mark of the fourth quarter. It was at that point that Matt Hodge exited the game for the first time, which was not the norm during the regular season.

St. Rose stormed out to a 23-3 lead by the early stages of the second quarter, at which point Montclair Immaculate countered with an 8-3 spurt to cut the deficit to 26-11 and show some signs of life.

The Purple Roses, however, methodically pushed their lead up to 37-15 by halftime and after trading baskets with the Lions on the way to a 42-20 score, St. Rose closed the third quarter with a 19-4 run to open up an overwhelming, 61-24 lead.

"That’s always our mentality," Matt Hodge said. "We want to show that we’re going to be here for 32 minutes on the defensive side and you guys are going to have to fight for everything."

That run extended to 28-5 during the first five minutes of the fourth and after Ebeling hit a three-pointer, followed by a layup by Panzini off a turnover to make it 70-25, Lynch went to his bench.

The Purple Roses worked in freshman Avery Lynch and Tyler Cameron off the bench throughout the game, with Lynch putting up five points and Cameron hitting a free throw for one. Senior Luke Roman also saw the floor and knocked down a three-pointer to cap the St. Rose scoring.

Friday's win not only clinched St. Rose its first state championship in 47 years; it provided a close-to-undeniable piece of evidence that the Purple Roses are the top team in New Jersey to end the season. According to NJ Advance Media, St. Rose entered championship weekend in the No. 1 position in the state rankings, with Don Bosco and Camden trailing close behind at Nos. 2 and 3.

Camden needed a blown call on the final play of the game to beat Manasquan on Tuesday, all but elminating the Panthers from the No. 1 conversation. Don Bosco, however, made a convincing argument of its own by handling Paul VI, 56-29, in the Non-Public A championship game Friday at Jersey Mike's Arena.

With both Non-Public champions and contenders for No. 1 holding opponents to 29 points in dominant state-final wins, it will be splitting hairs to decide which is No. 1. This season is only the second since the NJSIAA eliminated the Tournament of Champions, which decided a single champion every year since 1988-89 through 2021-22, with the exception of 2019-20 and 2020-21 due to COVID.

"I heard about the TOC before I got here and that being gone is pretty sad," Matt Hodge said. "We’ll see if we ever get a chance to play them."

Both St. Rose and Don Bosco won 29 games and beat Montclair Immaculate, Bergen Catholic and Ramapo, while both teams lost to the Patrick School. St. Rose moved ahead of Don Bosco -- which opened the season No. 1 in the state rankings -- when Don Bosco lost to Archbishop Stepinac of N.Y., 74-67, at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass. St. Rose beat Stepinac, 65-55, in December at the Jordan Classic in Manhattan.

"We did a great job of finishing strong," Lynch said. "I hope that people see that we should be one of the best teams in the state. The was a goal for us, secretly, to break into a top three situation in the state of New Jersey and we have done that. I wish this season would continue and we can go play in the Nation Championship somewhere, but we don’t, but this is great. This is as good as it gets."

While the two N.J. powers with star seniors headed to local high major programs -- Hodge to Villanova and Bosco's Dylan Harper to Rutgers -- have competed against one another from afar all year, they will not meet in an NJSIAA sanctioned game. While that did not sit all that comfortably with Matt Hodge, he also does not put much stock in what the rankings say.

"It doesn’t really matter that much," Hodge said of the final rankings. "It’s just that the statement we showed and that we have been showing in the Shore Conference and now in the states, to be able to leave the states that way, I think I’m fine with wherever they try to rank us. I think we showed who we really are."

Harper, more or less, echoed those sentiments after his team's win.

"Not at all," Harper said after his team's win on Friday when asked if he and his teammates care where they are ranked. "We just focused on every game, game-by-game.

"It’s cool top see a team like us on the map. We’re not a prep school. We’re a regular Catholic School. To see us on the map is special, but we never paid attention to stuff like that."

Whatever the statewide or national rankings say -- Don Bosco is ranked No. 9 and St. Rose No. 15 in the latest USA Today national poll -- St. Rose's 2023-24 will go down as an all-time season for both the school and the Shore Conference. Ranney was the last Shore Conference team to finish No. 1 in the state in 2018-19 and prior to that, the last team from the Shore to finish No. 1 in N.J. was Red Bank's undefeated 1982-83 team.

And it all started with a text.

"I heard about it and I hear it a lot," Matt Hodge said of the phrase his father uttered not even two years ago. "I didn’t know much about high school basketball or college basketball before I got here. It sounded a little weird to me from what I was used to, but to get over here and get that family experience was just awesome. I never had that before and having my brother here for it too was just awesome.

"That family atmosphere, you can’t repeat that anywhere. Not even close."

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