The Hudson County Boys’ Basketball Tournament finale last Saturday at Union City High School was just three minutes old and already, the two-time defending champion was on the ropes.
Hudson Catholic had won the prior two county titles, after not having won a single crown since 1975.
But this time, the Hawks had to be considered the underdog, facing mighty St. Peter’s Prep. In a span of a year, the roles had completely changed. The Hawks went from being the hunted into the hunter, facing a Marauder team that is packed solid with NCAA Division I talent.
“I would admit that we were the underdog coming in,” Hudson Catholic head coach Nick Mariniello said. “They’re a very good team with a lot of talented players.”
So three minutes into the title game, the Hawks couldn’t throw it in the ocean and the Marauders sprinted out to a 9-0 lead. Mariniello called a time out and the Marauders went back to their bench, waving and taunting the Hawks, as to say, “This one is over and thanks for showing up to our party.”
The lead moved to 16-6 at the end of the first quarter. Hudson Catholic had one field goal. The Hawks looked disheveled and disoriented.
Mariniello then pulled his team together.
“I told them that we already took their punch and we’re still here,” Mariniello said.
But things didn’t exactly look good for the two-time defending champs.
“I don’t think we got away from our game plan once,” Mariniello said. “We have a pretty good defensive team. We just had to find some mental toughness right there.”
Sure enough, the Hawks mounted their comeback. Led by senior guard J.R. Lynch, easily the smallest kid on the court, the Hawks were determined to not go down without a fight. Lynch canned two 3-pointers and the Hawks outscored the Marauders, 16-10, in the second quarter, slicing the lead to 26-22 at the half.
“We were only down four at the half,” Mariniello said. “That was a good sign.”
Not to mention that the Hawks crawled back into the contest without a single contribution from their leading scorer.
Junior guard Nassir Barrino went 0-fer in the first half, taking 11 shots and not making a single one. For someone who averages close to 15 points per game, posting a shutout in the first half had to be a culture shock for Barrino.
“I did get a little down on myself,” Barrino said. “I couldn’t believe what was happening.”
“We knew that the shots would come for Nassir,” Mariniello said. “I really think we grew up a lot in that first half.”
The Hawks wasted little time getting back into the game. Adam Traore scored two consecutive baskets down low and the Hawks tied the game at 26-26. Barrino then made his first shot of the game and the Hawks had a 28-26 lead.
At that point, the Marauders had to know they were in a war. Gone were the high-fives and body bumps. This was a grind-it-out, blue-collar physical battle.
Several players were suffering from leg cramps. Prep sensational sophomore Veer Singh suffered a cut over his right eye that required medical attention. In the fourth quarter, the biggest scare took place, when Prep’s fabulous freshman Nate Pierre-Louis collided with Hudson Catholic’s Safee Sabur and went down with an apparent concussion.’
Pierre-Louis remained on the floor for several minutes and was transported to a nearby hospital via stretcher and ambulance.
“We fought and they fought,” Barrino said. “It was very physical. But that’s the way it’s going to be on the next level [college], so I have to be ready.”
The Hawks limited the high-powered Marauders to just five points in the third quarter. That feat alone is amazing, considering all the offensive firepower the Marauders have.
“We kept up the fight and didn’t quit,” Mariniello said. “That was huge.”
The Hawks held a 34-31 lead going into the final period. The score was right where Mariniello wanted it. He knew he couldn’t compete with the Marauders in a high-octane offensive showdown. This was the only way the Hawks could hang around.
The Hawks grabbed a 36-31 lead with 6:48 left in the game on a basket by Lynch, who paced the Hawks with 14 points.
The Marauders weren’t about to go away easily. Singh recovered to hit a corner jumper that drew the Marauders to within 36-34 and added two of three free throws that tied the game at 36-36 with 5:35 left.
Senior guard Austin White hit a 3-pointer that gave him 17 points and sent the game into overtime.
In the extra session, the Hawks took over with their free throw prowess, connecting on nine-of-10 from the line. The free throw efficiency gave the Hawks the improbable 50-47 victory.
“I was concerned about a lot of things coming in,” Mariniello said. “I’m so proud of these kids. They took Prep’s best punch and responded with a counter punch. These kids were so resilient.”
The Hawks now have three straight county titles, but this one was the most remarkable of the three.
“I don’t know if anyone expected this, including myself,” Mariniello said. “We’re not the most talented team around. We’re not the prettiest. But we found a way to win.”
Barrino was asked about his poise, scoring six of his team’s points in overtime, including four straight clutch free throws.
“Coaches always say that big-time players make the big-time plays,” said Barrino, who scored all 10 of his points in the second half and overtime. “Well, this was big time. I had confidence in my team and myself to come back. We just had to keep working hard, like we do in practice. It paid off in the end.
Added Barrino, “I’m going to say that we beat the odds today. The first two years, we were the best team. This year, we just fought and fought. This means a lot. It was really big.”
Mariniello couldn’t stop singing the praises of his team – and rightly so. Just when it appeared as if the Marauders were going to run the Hawks right out of the building, the Hawks responded and made sure that the county championship remained at McGinley Square.
“Prep came into this game playing very well,” Mariniello said. “We were the underdog here this time and proved how resilient they really are.”
Resilient enough to win a third straight county title – when everyone else thought it was impossible.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.