It might have been the final game in the incredible history of St. Anthony High School basketball, but last Wednesday night wasn’t the place or the time to talk about the looming demise of legendary head coach Bob Hurley’s program and possibly his coaching career.
No, last Wednesday night’s 64-61 Hudson Catholic victory in the NJSIAA Non-Public B North state sectional title game at Rutgers University should have been exactly that -- a celebration of the Hawks finally capturing the ever-so-elusive state sectional title.
It should have been a day where the Hawks were finally ridding themselves of the demons that hovered about -- considering that the Hawks hadn’t defeated the Friars since the HCIAA title game in 1975, a game in the Jersey City Armory that featured future collegiate All-Americans and NBA standouts Jim Spanarkel and Mike O’Koren.
Think about that for a second. Hudson Catholic had not defeated St. Anthony in basketball in 42 years. In recent years, head coach Nick Mariniello had seven teams that faced the Friars in similar situations like the state sectional playoffs or even title game. Seven times, Mariniello went home a loser, falling once again to the legend.
This time, Mariniello got the win.
“To be honest, I never looked at it that way,” Mariniello said after the game. “Others were making more of an issue than I was. I’ve always been challenged by who St. Anthony is, but I prepare for every game the same way. I never looked at it that we were playing St. Anthony and that we never had beaten them.”
But now, the Hawks have. They were the ones who went home from Rutgers with a trophy, thanks to one of the best performances by a Hudson County hoopster in a very long time.
Junior guard Jahvon Quinerly put on an absolute clinic, scoring 25 points _ and he missed most of the second quarter with foul trouble.
Over the last three years that he has electrified local gymnasiums, Quinerly has displayed a pinpoint shooting touch from the perimeter. His range had no limits. Quinerly has been spotted pulling up from 27 feet and draining a 3-pointer with no problem.
But this time, Quinerly showed off another side to his game -- his ability to put the ball on the floor and literally blow by opponents.
Quinerly simply took the ball and went to the basket time and time again. He used the backboard like it was his personal friend. He just continued to drive and make lay-up after lay-up and the usually stingy defensive Friars had no answer for him.
Needless to say, it was a masterful performance -- much like the way Spanarkel and O’Koren’s performance in the 1975 title game at the Armory is still revered four decades after the game was played.
“He was very focused,” Mariniello said. “He was challenged to play against the best team around. If he can play that way against one of the best to ever coach the game, then he can play against anyone. He was laser focused and conscious of his being the whole time.”
The Hawks hadn’t won a state sectional title since 1976, the first year that Spanarkel left O’Koren on his own.
“That’s a long time,” Mariniello said. “We know because the banner is on the wall. They were in position to bring some pride to our school and our alums. A lot of time has been vested in our program. There was the outpouring of alumni that came to the game and cheered for us. This is what the kids wanted.”
Mariniello has only been at Hudson Catholic for eight years, so he can’t relate to the pain that some avid alumni have endured.
“As much as I’ve been embraced by the Hudson Catholic community, I’m not an alum,” Mariniello said. “So maybe I don’t have a full understanding of all that.”
After the game, Mariniello went right into the stands for one person.
“I went up to kiss my Mom,” Mariniello said. “My father lived to come to all the games. Now he’s gone, so my message to her was, ‘Dad would have loved this.’”
Mariniello said that he was approached by alums who all had the same message.
“They said that we made them feel proud to be a grad of the high school,” Mariniello said. “They were trying to relay the magnitude of what this all meant and what it meant to them.”
But after the game, after Quinerly’s masterful and memorable performance, the focus then turned to the Hall of Fame coach, who was left to handle the questions about the status of the school.
Rumors continue to persist that the school will close at the end of the year, that there isn’t enough money in the school’s coffers to keep the doors open.
Hurley, who doubles as the school’s president, was answering questions about the school instead of the basketball game. To his credit, Hurley said that there would be a proper time and place to discuss the status of the school, but it wasn’t in the bowels of the Rutgers Athletic Center.
“It was unfair to Coach,” Mariniello said. “It was unfair to his team. The guy just coached the game and his team lost. It was not fair to him to have to deal with those questions right there. I have a lot of respect for the profession and I have an unbelievable amount of respect for him and what he’s done. It was unfair to put him in that position. He’s worrying about his players.”
Two days after defeating St. Anthony, the Hawks had to load up the bus and head to the Pine Belt Arena in Toms River to face the Patrick School for the overall Non-Public B state crown. The Hawks were clearly not ready to play another game and lost 65-48.
“The St. Anthony game exhausted them,” Mariniello said. “They were emotionally and physically spent. We faced the Patrick School with veteran players, guys who are all going [NCAA] Division I.”
But the Hawks have a state sectional crown and removed the albatross from around their collective necks, thanks to the brilliant point guard who had a game for the ages.
“I’m generally happy for our kids,” Mariniello said. “I’m happy with what we did. I’m happy for the alums. I’m happy for my coaching staff. I’m happy for my players, because over the last month, we became a better team.”
And there were the Hawk basketball alums that were present, guys like former Hudson Reporter All-Area honorees like J.R. Lynch (University of Hartford) and Nassir Barrino (University of San Diego), both of whom came home to attend the game.
“This is for them, too,” Mariniello said. “They had faith and bought into the program. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
As for the current team, most return for a senior year, including the best of the best, namely Quinerly. But backcourt mate Luther Muhammad (15 points against St. Anthony) and frontcourt wizard Louis King (20 points against the Friars) also come back, making the Hawks very formidable next season.
“We return nine of our top 10 guys,” Mariniello said.
Just like last Wednesday should have been more about the Hawks finally winning opposed to those who wanted to chronicle Hurley’s demise. That day -- if it does come soon -- will be for another day. This day should have been strictly for the Hawks, because they finally won.