NJSIAA Non-Public B Championship

Friday, March 8, 2024

At Jersey Mike’s Arena, Rutgers University

Tipoff: 7 p.m.

St. Rose (28-2) vs. Montclair Immaculate (23-7)

St. Rose at a Glance

Head Coach: Brian Lynch

Last Group Championship: 1977

Last Group Final Appearance: 2023

Road to the Final: Defeated No. 8 Wildwood Catholic, 57-46; No. 5 Holy Cross Prep, 65-39; No. 3 Bishop Eustace, 82-40.

Top Players

Matt Hodge, Sr., 6-8 (17.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.1 blocks)

Jayden Hodge, So., 6-5 (12.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.7 steals)

Gio Panzini, Sr., 6-6 (10.1 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.9 blocks)

Bryan Ebeling, Jr., 6-3 (7.2 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2.6 assists)

Evan Romano, Jr., 6-3 (8.8 points, 2.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists)

Avery Lynch, Fr., 6-4 (7.8 points, 2.8 rebounds)

Tyler Cameron, So., 6-1 (3.1 points, 1.9 rebounds)

St. Rose senior Matt Hodge. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
St. Rose senior Matt Hodge. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)

Montclair Immaculate at a Glance

Head Coach: Jimmy Salmon

Last Group Championship: 1978 (Non-Public C)

Last Group Final Appearance: 1978

Road to the Final: Defeated No. 7 Gill St. Bernard’s, 55-51; No. 3 St. Mary’s Rutherford, 52-25; No. 1 Morris Catholic, 72-70

Top Players

Kole Grandison, So., 6-6 (16.8 points)

Myles Blackley, Jr., 6-5 (11.5 points)

Jaren Barnett, So., 5-10 (11.1 points)

Manny Smith, Sr., 6-3 (8.9 points)

Va’Shaun Harper, Fr., 6-2 (7.4 points)

Akeem Langevine, Jr., 6-5 (6.4 points)

St. Rose sophomore Jayden Hodge. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)
St. Rose sophomore Jayden Hodge. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)

The basketball fans of New Jersey are not getting a match up of No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the state this postseason, but make no mistake about it: those teams will be competing within one another on Friday night in Piscataway, even if they are not actually playing one another.

St. Rose will watch the 5 p.m. NJSIAA Non-Public A championship game between Don Bosco and Paul VI to see what its competition for the No. 1 ranking in the state looks like in its final game of the season. Don Bosco will be playing in front of what figures to be a large, supportive crowd at Jersey Mike’s Arena – the future home court of its Rutgers-bound star Dylan Harper – while trying to make its case as the bet team in the state while facing one of the surprise stories of this year’s state tournament in Paul VI.

Whatever happens in that game, however, the ball, it would seem, is in St. Rose’s court. When the Purple Roses take the floor following Don Bosco’s audition, they will be playing not only for their first state championship since 1977, but their first ever No. 1 ranking in the state.

St. Rose has lost just twice this season – to the Patrick School on opening night and to national powerhouse Montverde and its roster of future high-major Division I players – and has also defeated a team that Don Bosco lost to in Archbishop Stepinac of N.Y. Don Bosco’s loss to Stepinac prompted St. Rose’s jump to No. 1 in the NJ Advance Media state rankings, where the Purple Roses have remained ever since.

After winning the Shore Conference Tournament in dominant fashion, St. Rose played two uneventful games in the NJSIAA Tournament in taking out Wildwood Catholic and Holy Cross Prep. With senior standout and Villanova commit Matt Hodge out sick in the first round, St. Rose “only” beat Wildwood Catholic by 11, 57-46. In the following round, the Purple Roses dominated through three quarters, 53-14, before Holy Cross cleaned things up in the fourth quarter for a 65-39 final.

St. Rose senior Gio Panzini. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
St. Rose senior Gio Panzini. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)

In the championship, St. Rose did not allow Bishop Eustace to do any late-game window-dressing. After storming out to a 29-6 lead, St. Rose did not allow the Crusaders to get closer than 15 points and sprinted through the finish line in an 82-40 win.

Now, the Purple Roses prepare to play a Montclair Immaculate team that lost to Don Bosco by only five points, but it came while Harper was sidelined with a knee injury. The Lions, as usual, played a loaded schedule and should be as prepared as they can be to take on the state’s No. 1 team.

Montclair Immaculate has often gone overlooked while playing in the same section as Roselle Catholic, Gill St. Bernard’s and formerly the Patrick School, St. Anthony and Hudson Catholic. Immaculate, however, has been either close to that talent tier or part of it and finally won an elusive sectional championship for the first time since winning the Non-Public C title in 1978.

The Lions are a very young team and, in a lot of ways, enter Friday night in a similar position to the one St. Rose was in heading into last year’s Non-Public B championship game. That St. Rose team had no seniors in its seven-man rotation and this Montclair Immaculate squad has only two seniors in its top eight in the rotation.

St. Rose junior Bryan Ebeling. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)
St. Rose junior Bryan Ebeling. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)

The top scorer and rebounder on the Lions is 6-foot-6 sophomore Kole Grandison, an explosive athlete who will test the athleticism of St. Rose’s versatile group of defenders. Junior Myles Blackley offers similar challenges for the opposing defense at 6-5, while point guard Jaren Barnett is another sophomore playing a prominent role and averaging 11 points per game.

Manny Smith is the lone senior in the starting five, while freshman Va’Shaun Harper is another underclassman who gives Montclair Immaculate a bright future beyond its breakthrough 2024 state-tournament run.

As battle-tested and promising as Montclair Immaculate’s roster is, it will be up against a machine on Friday night. St. Rose has length, strength and skill across the board and figures to match up well with Montclair Immaculate’s lineups. Matt Hodge, Jayden Hodge and Gio Panzini are 6-8, 6-5 and 6-6, respectively and Bryan Ebeling and Evan Romano are 6-3 guards who both defend at a high level. Sophomore Tyler Cameron is also a committed defender, while freshman Avery Lynch is a long 6-4 and senior Luke Roman also stands 6-4, so the Purple Roses have more than enough size to contend with Montclair Immaculate.

St. Rose junior Evan Romano. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
St. Rose junior Evan Romano. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)

On top of playing for the No. 1 ranking, Matt Hodge could also be making one last pitch to be the state Player of the Year. With Harper missing time due to injury, Hodge has been a constant in the St. Rose lineup. His numbers are not gaudy, but he significantly impacts every facet of the game while often only playing three quarters per game because of how thoroughly St. Rose dominates when he is on the floor.

St. Rose has spent all season taking nothing for granted after losing to Ranney in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals, so the chances the Purple Roses will be off their game on Friday night are not high. They have played under pressure and with the No. 1 target for two months now and with one game to go, the Roses will not lack for intensity from the jump. Montclair Immaculate has a lot to look forward to with its young roster, but St. Rose has made it clear all season that its time is now.

The Pick: St. Rose, 76-57

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