St. Anthony collects ninth overall state title in 16 years
They might have been readily known as the team without a superstar and the most unlikely of state champions, but after the paint began to dry on the 67-55 victory over Bloomfield Tech that gave St. Anthony yet another NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title Sunday night at the Continental Airlines Arena, the idea of greatness finally began to settle in with the fabulous Friars.
While this team might not have possessed the top-flight major college shoo-in and didn't have the sure-fire All-State performer like other St. Anthony great teams of the past, this team had something special - an undefeated ending, 30-0 perfection, which is not easy to do in high school basketball, especially when you wear a bulls' eye on your back like the Friars do game after game.
"There is talk about the other great St. Anthony teams and the ones that went undefeated," senior forward Otis Campbell said in the post-game press conference. "Well, we're in there right with them. We're a great undefeated team just like they were."
But the other great St. Anthony teams had stars. The 1989 team had four guys who played pro basketball. The 1996 had three guards who went on to play at major colleges. This is a team with its top two seniors headed to play in junior college.
"Everyone plays together on this team," said Campbell, who missed most of the season with a broken foot, only to return in time for the state playoff run, scoring nine points in the win Sunday. "Everyone is a star on this team. We all sacrificed. We all worked hard. No one could have ever expected us to be undefeated."
That's for sure. Not when your leading scorer, Marcus Williams, averages a hair over 12 points per game. Not when you have only two players over 6-4 in height. On paper, this St. Anthony team doesn't come close to some of the others in the past, but this team has something that most of the others don't - an unblemished record. Only four teams, 1974, 1989, 1996 and now this one, have gone through the entire year without a scratch.
"We've had one in each decade," said legendary St. Anthony coach Bob Hurley. "I know I've never had a better defensive team. To finish the season undefeated means that they have achieved as much as any other year. I don't like to compare teams, but this team did go a long way. We didn't build this team to be undefeated. We just built this team to do well in the state tournament. But they play great defense and the offense is very underrated."
The Friars put on an offensive display Sunday that hadn't been seen previously in the state tournament. Junior forward Barney Anderson, who earned game Most Valuable Player honors by scoring 15 points, was a force down low. Guards Derrick Mercer, Ahmad Mosby and Sean McCurdy kept the pace and the flow of the game moving at a higher speed, making sure that the big men got the ball in the right spots.
And then there was the play of Campbell, who started off the season looking like he could emerge as that sure-fire star, a sharpshooter who had a clone of Terry Dehere written all over him.
Campbell had a brilliant summer as the team's leading scorer, earning the MVP of the AND1 National Tournament that the Friars captured in Philadelphia. Nine games into the season, Campbell was averaging close to 15 points per game, solid numbers for a hard-working player in his senior year.
Then, disaster struck in the form of a broken foot. Campbell was forced to the sidelines.
"Before I got hurt, I was playing so well," Campbell said. "When I got hurt, it was so frustrating, because I really wanted to do well for my senior year. I didn't have the same intensity when I came back and I was feeling bad, feeling sorry for myself. I just wasn't the same player. But Coach (Hurley) told me to let it come back to me naturally, that I couldn't force the issue. I became more relaxed and just tried to get my rhythm back."
The rhythm returned for Campbell's final high school game.
"It's very rewarding," Campbell said. "I was glad that I was able to come back and contribute."
Williams, who earned T of C titles as a freshman and a sophomore, was fortunate to be able to go out on top. "Coach Hurley puts a big emphasis on the seniors going out with a championship," Williams said. "That's what I had to do. It was my last year and I wanted to go out with another title. This one is the most special, because this team went through some ups and downs and we still finished undefeated. We were able to keep everyone together."
With the win, Williams was able to share the distinction of having three T of C titles to his resume, like the talented triumvirate of Anthony Perry, Rashon Burno and Delvon Arrington enjoyed before going off to big-time college hoops.
"It's a great feeling to know we were able to accomplish this," Williams said.
"Not only did this team win it," Hurley said. "But they were able to put themselves in the history books."
Here's another amazing thing to consider. The NJSIAA has held the Tournament of Champions since 1989, when the state high school organization wanted to capitalize on the immense popularity of the St. Anthony team of that year that was more like a road tour of the Beatles than a high school basketball team.
Well, in the 16 years of the T of C, the Friars have now won the whole shebang nine times _ including three of the last four. Only one other school, St. Patrick's of Elizabeth, has won more than one.
And get this: The majority of the players on this team, namely Mercer, McCurdy, game MVP Anderson and the blossoming Ahmad Nivins, will all be back next year.
Maybe when it's all said and done, when Hurley is sitting in a rocking chair at age 80, watching the wheels go round and round, we'll all get to appreciate this greatness. Because when you really think about it, it's beyond remarkable, beyond unbelievable.
And with all the remarkable things that the fabulous Friars have achieved over the years, this may rank as the most incredible, because a team filled with no stars just ran the table on a 30-0 run.
"It is truly amazing," said Bloomfield Tech coach Nick Marinello, the former Marist and St. Peter's College assistant who was very gracious in defeat. "For Coach Hurley to accomplish what he has and sustain it every year, it's amazing. A lot of people now take it for granted. But I don't. It's phenomenal. He's the best high school basketball coach in the country, plain and simple."
Well put. And so very true.