Photo courtesy of BenShotIt.
By David Cordova
When high school playoffs start, most expect the highly-favored teams to just steamroll their way through everything. But then there are those teams that come from nowhere and just take over and eventually wind up winning crucial games.
For Immaculate Conception, they have stood out so far in the last couple of days. The high school varsity team from Montclair, New Jersey has had a very successful season thus far, going 20-8, with a young squad that only had three seniors as elder statesmen.
However, the Lions have been battle-tested, playing against out-of-state teams such as Archbishop Wood (PA), Gonzaga (Washington, D.C.) and Findlay Prep (NV).
Those experiences helped them for the playoff run that they are now experiencing. It first started with the Essex County Tournament, in which they dispatched Seton Hall Prep, 54-45, in the semifinals. But then they ran into a tough Newark East Side squad, in which they lost by four, 58-54, in the championship game.
After that, came the North Jersey, Non-Public B sectional playoffs, in which there are four rounds, and the winner gets to play for the sectional title on Wednesday, March 7th, at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.
The first playoff game of the sectionals on February 27th at Mount St. Dominic Academy, in Caldwell, was against none other than The Patrick School, a program that is always a national powerhouse, and was the defending New Jersey Tournament of Champions winner from last season.
From the beginning of the game, the Lions were determined to outmaneuver and out-man the Celtics, as they ended the first quarter leading, 14-12. When the second quarter started, Immaculate senior Jalen Carey, bound for Syracuse next fall, threw down a dunk and would bring the lead up five, 19-14, with 5:46 to go.
But Celtics seniors Markquis Nowell and Valdir Manuel continued to keep the game close for the Patrick School. However, the Lions were in the lead at halftime, ahead by four, 34-30.
The second half was a very close game for both sides, but with senior Justin Winston and Carey helping lead the way throughout. But with 0.8 seconds left, and the score tied at 63-63, Carey was fouled and headed to the line for two free throws, which he calmly made, which shut the door on the defending champions and advanced them to the next round.
Then, in the next round, the quarterfinals, which took place on March 1st at the Yanitelli Center on the campus of St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, they would face Hudson Catholic, one of the top teams in the state.
From the start of that game, Immaculate stuck to their game plan, as they led early, and capitalized on the Hawks’ inability to make baskets. It was a low-scoring game early at halftime, 21-20. Early in the second quarter, Hudson stole the lead a couple of times. But Immaculate’s offensive contributions from Winston, Carey and an outstanding performance from sophomore guard Zion Bethea, eventually brought the Lions to an eighteen-point lead, which they would never relinquish as they ended up running away with the game, 60-49 and advancing to today’s showdown against Roselle Catholic.
What makes Immaculate’s team so special? The fact that their young, but talented team has been battle-tested against some of the best competition that the Garden State has to offer.
In the game against the Patrick School, it came down to guard play. In the game against Hudson Catholic, it was all about size, which they used effectively and their defense, which they used to perfection, as they held the Hawks’ Jahvon Quinerly to seven points.
The Roselle Catholic team that they’re facing today is coming off a Union County championship and is hungry for a chance to make it to the title game and the Tournament of Champions this year.
Will Immaculate be able to pull off another upset? Or will their string of wins end? That is to be determined today at 2 PM. But when all is said and done, there will be lasting memories left by the school from Montclair.