THE 28th GREATER MIDDLESEX CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT BOYS BASKETBALL FINAL
WHO: No. 2 St. Joseph (20-4) vs. No. 1 East Brunswick (22-2).
WHEN/WHERE: 8 p.m. tonight/Rutgers Athletic Center.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: St. Joseph beat No. 15 Bishop Ahr 68-39, No. 7 Spotswood 85-43 and No. 11 Old Bridge 75-50. East Brunswick beat No. 17 Perth Amboy 80-34, No. 9 Sayreville 69-37 and No. 4 Woodbridge 76-31.
COMMON OPPONENTS: East Brunswick beat St. Joseph 58-54 on Dec. 14 in Metuchen and 52-45 on Jan. 17 in East Brunswick. Otherwise, St. Joseph is 13-0 versus the GMC this season with an average margin of victory against Middlesex County opponents of 26 points per game, while East Brunswick is 18-0 and is outscoring the local competition by 30 points per game.
CHAMPIONSHIP HISTORY: St. Joseph, the three-time defending champion, is making an unprecedented sixth straight appearance in the Middlesex County/GMCT final and its 19th overall. The Falcons are 6-12 all-time in the final, having hoisted the crown in 1993, 1998 and 1999. They lost five straight title games during the 2000s (2001, 2003, 2005, 2008 and 2009) and are 92-40 in tournament play. East Brunswick is making its first appearance in the final since it last won the title in 1996. The Bears are 2-2 in four finals appearances, coming up victorious in 1987 and falling short in 1989 and 1995. They sport a 56-42 record in the tournament.
COACHES: Dave Turco is 179-43 in eight seasons at St. Joseph and 342-105 overall including stints at Carteret and South Brunswick; Bo Henning is 385-235 in 25 seasons at East Brunswick and 396-246 overall having spent one year at J.F. Kennedy.
ST. JOSEPH STARTERS: Jimbo Long (Sr., G, 5-10, 5.2 ppg, 3.8 apg, 1.7 rpg); Wade Baldwin (Jr., G, 6-3, 17.5 ppg, 7.1 apg, 4.4 rpg); Marques Townes (Jr., G/F, 6-3, 13.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg); Karl Towns (So., F, 7-0, 22.0 ppg, 14.8 rpg, 5.6 bpg); James Ziemba (Sr., F/C, 6-9, 5.0 ppg, 7.2 rpg).
ST. JOSEPH KEY RESERVES: Raven Owen (Jr., G, 5-9, 6.8 ppg, 1.0 rpg); Michael Brunson (Sr., G, 5-11, 2.3 ppg); Brian Fitzpatrick (Sr., G, 6-0, 1.9 ppg, 1.3 rpg); Sean Finan (Sr., F, 6-3, 1.9 ppg, 1.0 rpg).
STARTERS: Amir Bell (Jr., G, 6-4, 7.3 ppg, 6.3 apg, 3.3 rpg); Gary Baumer (Jr., G, 5-10, 11.8 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 73 3-point FGs made); Dan Leung (Sr., G, 5-8, 8.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.4 apg); Rob Ukawuba (Sr., F, 6-3, 15.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 3.2 spg); Jake Krantz (Sr., C, 6-5, 7.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg).
EAST BRUNSWICK KEY RESERVES: Carl Taylor (Jr., G, 5-10, 3.0 ppg, 2.1 rpg); Adedamola Adedokum (Sr., C, 6-3, 3.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg); Ethan Folz (Sr., G, 5-8, 3.1 ppg); Pat McMullen (Sr., G, 5-11, 2.0 ppg).
ST. JOSEPH REPORT: Expectations were at an all-time high before the Falcons ever picked up a basketball this season, and it’s unjustly staked them as dysfunctional. Outside of their two losses to East Brunswick, they fell to DeSoto, TX, a nationally-ranked squad, and Patrick School, with Karl Towns sitting that one out. Yes, East Brunswick exposed them as a team lacking cohesion and mental toughness, but don’t be so quick to forget the season East Brunswick is enjoying and its resume. St. Joe’s has answered the call every other time this season, and hasn’t even broken a sweat against anybody else. They’ve beaten GMC opponents on average by 25.7 points, are limiting opponents to under 50 (48.9) and can score as well as anybody in averaging an even 70 every time out. During spurts on defense when they’re able to force contested shots for an extended period, turn out the lights because once Towns or Ziemba pulls the rebound, it’s off to the races. They have the ability to close the door on opponents in the blink of an eye with namely Baldwin, Townes and Long out in transition. They typically go a signature run at some point during each game, something in the neighborhood of 20-2 or 15-0 in just a couple of minutes. Long is arguably the most-underrated player in the entire county. While he doesn’t score much as part of a crowded group all looking to get their hands on the rock, he’s the calming presence an offense of that magnitude requires. He’s a terrific floor general and rarely ever misses and open jump shot. Ziemba is often unheralded for the interior defense he provides in addition to his workmanlike effort on the boards. Townes has seemed to find his role on the team, and its a unique one. He’s recently been adapting his approach to whatever is warranted at a particular stage of the game. Of late, he’s been a facilitator on offense and flying around in the defensive end, creating chaos. Don’t be so quick to forget he’s one of the county’s best at taking the ball to the goal and finishing around the rim. He seems to be the player that’s made the biggest sacrifice for the club, and it’s refreshing to see. Baldwin might very well be the best athlete in the county. We’ve always known he could score, and he scores in bunches, but his defensive prowess deserves recognition. His combination of superior athleticism with a newly discovered dedication to playing hard in the defensive end has stymied a slew of very good offensive players. Most recently, it was the job he did shutting down Old Bridge’s Tyler Drews. He limited Drews to four points, 14 below Drews’ season average, while matched up with him. And what can be said about Towns? He’s playing at a level in this tournament that’s almost unthinkable. When you’re postseason averages are a fairly substantial increase from your regular season norms, you’re a big-time player. Towns just goes about his business, though. He’s averaging 29.3 points, 17 points and four blocks in tournament play. Raven Owen, who’ll suit up after missing the last few games, provides instant scoring and defensive intensity off the bench.
REPORT: The Bears have worn out their competition by using a combination of tenacious defensive ball pressure, a team-wide commitment to rebounding and exuding a max effort every time out. They allow less than 40 points per game and their average margin of victory is a shade over 25. Aside from their two meetings with St. Joe’s, nobody has really offered them much of a challenge if you discount a pair of road losses to St. Anthony and Roselle Catholic. They’re patient offensively in the half court with the Princeton-bound Bell orchestrating motion sets that often frustrate opposing teams into foul trouble. They can be a lethal quick-hitting offense too since they rebound well and create plenty of turnovers. That allows namely Bell, Ukawuba and Leung to get out and run the open court which gets them easy buckets and a fair share of free throws. With the long-range specialist Baumer, they have the capability of shooting the lights out from downtown, and have an array of complementary shooters from distance. When the 3s aren’t falling though, they’re hard-pressed at times to score the ball since Ukawuba and Krantz are their only two interior threats. Leung is a heady player who does a little bit of everything well, and his tireless motor makes him a candidate for the best 5-8 rebounder in the state. His and Bell’s on-the-ball defense are as good as that of any other back court in the state. Krantz has good vision which makes him effective in finding the open man using the kick-out pass, or judging if he has just enough space to elude a defender around the goal. Bell’s length, especially his wingspan, makes him nearly impossible to turnover. The NJIT-bound Ukawuba is an athletic freak with a versatile game, and is a matchup nightmare. He can create for himself off the dribble, is very strong around the rim and can knock down the open trey. Taylor is a useful player off the bench who brings energy, and Adedokum provides a steady presence on the block when spelling Krantz or Ukawuba.
OUTLOOK: Sweeping a season series, especially beating a team for a third time, is no walk in the park. It’s especially arduous when both sides are as evenly-matched as St. Joe’s and East Brunswick appear to be. Here are the facts. East Brunswick traveled to Metuchen and first beat St. Joe’s exactly 10 weeks ago today, and it’s already been five weeks since the last time they squared off. East Brunswick used a similar formula to grab the ‘W’ on both occasions. The Bears showed maturity, discipline and got tough when the going got going when each game was still in doubt during crunch time. Above all else, East Brunswick proved it could close teams out in each of those meetings. They were able to rattle St. Joe’s composure, especially in the last meeting when East Brunswick held the Falcons scoreless over the game’s final 4:13. They lured St. Joe’s into foul trouble in each meeting and in their first meeting, Towns left the game with his fourth foul as St. Joe’s held an 11-point lead with less than seven minutes to play. When Towns reentered four minutes later, East Brunswick led by five and would ultimately end the game on a 22-9 run to seal the deal. However, for as unwavering as East Brunswick has been all season long, perhaps the issue here is predominately about St. Joe’s. After their second loss to East Brunswick, Turco admitted that his big three (Towns, Baldwin and Townes) each self-imploded at different times during the game and that his team lacked vital chemistry. Perhaps the meltdown that night was a culmination of all the frustrations they experienced during the season’s first month finally reaching its boiling point. Turco points to St. Joe’s clash with Patrick School 20 days ago as the season’s game-changer. Towns sat that game out with tendinitis on his knee and St. Joe’s ultimately lost by seven, but there were signs of maturity. Baldwin exploded for 30 points, including 18 in the fourth quarter, sparking a furious comeback attempt. Said Turco after the game: “This was the first time this year I saw the fight, the effort, the energy. Every possession mattered to them. We didn’t get caught up in the officiating, we didn’t have a prima dona attitude, we concentrated on playing ball. I really think this team matured today.” Since then, St. Joe’s has won six games by an average of 30 points and the players seemed to have figured out how to best utilize each other’s talents. The bottom line is that no matter how solid East Brunswick is right now, and they’re about as solid as a rock coming off of an astounding 45-point drubbing of Woodbridge, it’s possible that it might not matter. The Bears have thrived off chemistry, execution and a willingness to work harder than everybody they play to this point. St. Joe’s roster is front-loaded with three Division I-caliber prizes that includes Towns, who’s playing as well as anybody is in the state right now. All told, this promises to be a GMCT final for the ages as never has the tournament final featured a matchup of teams with this caliber of talent. Mind you, five players with at least a Division I offer (Towns, Baldwin, Townes, Bell, Ukawuba) will be on the same floor. There’s also something to be said about the mutual respect each team shares for one another. With upwards of 5,000 spectators from all across the state filing into the RAC, you can bet emotions and tensions will be running high. The team that does a better job blocking out the distractions and hoopla engulfing the atmosphere, executes its game plan the way it was drawn up and REBOUNDS should prevail.
DID YOU KNOW? Dave Turco is making his eighth coaching appearance in the Middlesex County/GMCT final, tying him with legendary Perth Amboy coach Bill Buglovsky for most all-time…Bo Henning played at Colonia before graduating in 1971…St. Joseph’s Jimbo Long and James Ziemba are the first players in GMCT history to play on four tournament finalists…St. Joseph has the highest all-time winning percentage in tournament history at .700…East Brunswick has had only five coaches since its inception in 1958, including current athletic director Frank Noppenberger.