With March madness in full effect, and local teams out of concession (unless you consider Connecticut local) We focus on two high-school local stories. St. Joseph defeated Newark East Side, 49-47, in the title game of the 26th NJSIAA/ShopRite Tournament of Champions on Monday at Sun National Bank Center in Trenton, before a crowd of close to 5,000 . It was an exciting teeth bitting game that went to the buzzer., East side came up short and faulted at the end when Akbar Hoffman’s 3-point attempt from the top of the key was altered by Wade Baldwin and fell off the mark given St. Joseph its first tournament win. St. Joseph of Metuchen is anything but a grind-it-out basketball team, but the team show it grit against no. 1 rank East Side. The team entered the NJSIAA/ShopRite Tournament of Champions final averaging a shade under 75 points per game on the season and 81.6 in the state tournament, meaning it is usually showtime whenever this team is in victory mode. Top-seeded St. Joseph, which finished the season 26-0 against New Jersey competition, completed its progression to the title with its victory over the second seed. St. Joseph had lost in the semifinals in 2012 and in last year’s final before becoming the first Middlesex County team to capture a crown in the 26-year history of the event. St. Joseph, which earned 30 victories for the first time in school history, was held to its third-lowest offensive output of the season but held East Side to its fourth-lowest total in a classic defensive struggle. Each team finished its season at 30-2. “People talk about our offense, but our defense is pretty good too,” said St. Joseph coach Dave Turco, whose team forced East Side into 31 percent shooting. “We made some key stops, got some key rebounds and had to grind one out, something we haven’t had to do this season.” Karl Towns, St. Joseph’s 7-1 center headed to Kentucky, finished with eight points, eight rebounds and three blocks, scoring single digits for the first time this season against the physical, relentless defense of Abdul Lewis. Towns played in foul trouble and sat for small stretches in the second, third and fourth quarters. Baldwin led St. Joseph with 12 points, while Breein Tyree and Marques Townes had 10 each. Townes shot 6-of-12 from the foul line, but he made two big ones with 1:03 left after East Side had gone ahead by one point, its first and only lead of the game. Townes added one more foul shot with 14 seconds left to make it a two-point game. “After Linden (in the T of C semifinals), we really emphasized defense,” Townes said. “We spent time on pick-and-rolls, on fighting over screens and I thought our defense was the key.” The most startling statistic of the game was the 25 turnovers charged to St. Joseph, including eight in the fourth quarter. The Metuchen school held a 24-7 lead with 7:05 left in the second quarter, but that is when East Side, which had given up just 40.5 points per game in the state tournament, went to work on the defensive end. “We have faced defensive pressure this season, but their half-court defense was as good as we’ve seen, so give them the credit,” Turco said. “I don’t think it’s a matter of what we didn’t do after getting that big lead, it’s what they did.” East Side’s one lead in the game, which came on a 3-pointer by Jamar Gilbert with 1:37 left, lasted 29 seconds after Townes nailed the two big foul shots. In fact, East Side never scored again. In the closing minute, East Side had a good look inside, but Towns was able to alter the shot and grab the big rebound.
After Townes made it 49-47 by sinking a foul shot with 14 seconds left, Newark East Side called a timeout with eight seconds showing. Ahmad Harrison took the inbound pass, brought the ball into the front court and handed off to Hoffman. When Baldwin came over on the defensive switch, his presence forced Hoffman to double-pump while in the air and miss the shot, then the celebration was on. Hoffman, guarded by Tyree the majority of the game, scored six points. “I came to Turco as a freshman and I always told him that my plan was not to only win multiple state titles, but to win the T of C,” Towns said. “And I’m glad that I was able to fulfill my promise. Turco always believed my promises, so I’m glad I was able to fulfill this one and leave my career on top and have the group finish on top for him.” The non-public school from Metuchen could not have played much better in the opening quarter in taking a 19-7 lead. Tyree scored eight points in the quarter, scoring four baskets on acrobatic drives to the hoop, including a one-hand, thunderous dunk over two players to the delight of the crowd. All five starters scored at least two points for St. Joseph in the first seven minutes. Rattling off a 9-0 run spanning the first and second quarters, St. Joseph led, 24-7, with 7:05 left in the half. But Newark East Side, which shot just 25 percent in the first half (7-of-29), relied on its pressure defense to hold St. Joseph to just four points the rest of the half. Scoring the half’s final nine points, East Side trailed by 28-21 at the break when Harrison hit two foul shots with just two-tenths of a second on the clock. “In typical fashion, backs against the wall, they just came back,” East Side co-coach Anthony Tavares said. “They almost did it. Hats off to the seniors. They’ve been a pleasure to coach, phenomenal student-athletes, and I wish them nothing but the best in their futures. They deserve it. If there’s anyone who deserves it, based on the way they represented the city, it’s them. They’re a great group of young men that are going to prosper.”