The Hudson County Tournament championship game between St. Peter’s Prep and Marist was headed to halftime and the Royal Knights were living up to their prophecy of hoping to capture the county title in the final year of the school’s existence.
The Marist players had made it their battle cry since the school’s administration announced in January that the school would indeed close its doors at the end of the current school year. The idea was that it would be a mystical, magical journey that could carry the Royal Knights to the county title for the very last time.
There was only one problem with that idea. There was another team in the way of that fairytale ending, namely the Marauders of Grand and Warren.
And at halftime, with the Marauders trailing by three points in a rock-‘em, sock-‘em kind of game made points at a premium, Prep senior guard Will White made his voice heard.
White had been a participant in three prior Hudson County Tournament final games and a semifinalist in all four years of high school. Yet, before last Saturday, White had no idea what it was like to be a tournament champion – county or state. Sure, there were a host of close calls and disappointments at the buzzer, but there were no championship banners to hang on the wall.
So with the Marauders trailing 22-19 at the break at High Tech High School in Secaucus last Saturday, White spoke to his teammates.
“The only thing that should be in our minds is winning,” White said. “We’re a good team, a good defensive team. If we play together, we should win this game. It’s destiny that we should win this.”
The message was loud and clear.
“He’s a great leader,” said sophomore guard Mark Armstrong said of White. “He said in the locker room that it was our destiny; that we worked hard for this.”
So White got the Marauders going in the third quarter with an electric drive to the basket, slicing the lead to one. Later in the quarter, Ray Ford (14 points, seven rebounds) hit consecutive baskets to give the Marauders the lead at 30-28, in the middle of a critical 10-0 run.
“Going in, they were the Cinderella story,” Ford said. “But we had to get in the way.”
That stretch at the end of the third quarter would eventually increase the Marauders’ advantage to eight at 36-28 on two free throws from Armstrong to start the fourth quarter. In a tight back-and-forth struggle, it was all the Marauders would need to hold on to a 44-41 victory and give the Marauders their 15th county championship overall and the school’s first since 2011.
How did the Marauders hold off the Royal Knights, looking to gain one last sliver of glory?
The Marauders (23-3) did so by putting the ball in White’s hands and watching him dribble the clock away, whittling precious time off the clock in the fourth quarter.
“Will put things together and the rest of the team trusted him,” said Prep head coach Alex Mirabel, who finally got a championship to hang his hat on after a litany of close calls over the last six years. “The kids all trust each other a lot. Once we had a six-point lead, our guards did a great job of controlling the game. I’m excited for Will because he’s a glue guy. He keeps this team together. We’ve been working on finishing games out since the first day of practice.”
But incredibly, almost amazingly, the Marauders held off the Royal Knights despite going the entire fourth quarter without scoring a single field goal.
Imagine that: the Marauders actually won the county title in a game where they went the entire final period without making a single basket, just connecting instead on 10 free throws.
Now where or when does that ever happen? Never mind winning a big game. How about winning a county tournament title on only foul shots? It’s a mind blowing stat.
“At the end of the game, we were able to hold the ball,” White said. “We held the ball for almost the entire fourth quarter. It wasn’t surprising to me.”
Armstrong added 12 points, with White tallying seven points.
No Royal Knights (23-5) player reached double figures, another stat that bordered on mind blowing. Donavan Long led the way with nine points.
Marist head coach Ben Gamble, who is now taking his third basketball head coaching job to the school’s closing, said that his players weren’t distracted by the all the talk of the school’s rumored closing and the subsequent demise.
“Just trying to fight through all of that, I’m so proud of the kids,” said Gamble, whose team defeated Montclair Kimberley Academy in the first round of the NJSIAA Non-Public B North playoffs three days after the loss to Prep. “The kids did a great job just leading up to this [the county title game]. I think either way, it was going to be an emotional game. We looked forward to playing Prep. We were delighted to be a part of it. We had a couple of things go wrong for us and that hurt us.”
Manny Toha led the way against MKA with 19 points, nine rebounds, six assists and five steals in the final home game ever at Marist. It was sad to think that a school with a rich basketball tradition, a program that once won six county titles in a row, would be done.
Prep was not getting caught up in sentimentality.
Still, there was some emotion involved, especially for someone like Mirabel, who had to endure the tough side of some county title contests against Hudson Catholic. When the Hawks were rolling to their county-record seven straight championships in a row, the last three straight came against Mirabel and his Marauders.
“When I first took the job, we took some lumps,” Mirabel said. “I started to think about why the school hired me. But this feels good. It’s a special thing.”
And as a senior who experienced many setbacks over the years, White was not about to let that happen again.
“There were a lot of people who doubted us this week,” White said. “We never doubted ourselves. We knew we had the best team.”
White reminded the Marauders of that at halftime – and it worked. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com