North Brunswick coach Ed Breheney’s 23-year tenure ranks second among the Greater Middlesex Conference boys basketball coaching fraternity, making him a leading authority on the conference’s postseason tournament.
Having coached in every GMCT since 1990, Breheney guided the Raiders to their only GMCT title in 1997 and brought them within five points of last year’s crown.
Breheney said none of the previous 22 GMCT finals he’s been affiliated with comes close to matching the level of anticipation, excitement and hype surrounding tonight’s showdown between No. 2 St. Joseph and No. 1 East Brunswick in the 28th edition of the event. Tip time is 8 p.m. at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
“I can’t recall there ever being a county final between teams as talented as these are,” Breheney said. “Not to mention they’ve already played two close games. There’s no reason to believe tonight’s game won’t be as equally as competitive.”
While St. Joseph will set a new standard by making its sixth straight appearance in a Middlesex County/GMCT final, there’s plenty of other fascinating nuggets about this game to chew on.
East Brunswick hasn’t played in a tournament final since capturing its last title in 1996. The Bears swept the home-and-home regular-season series between the teams, and St. Joseph needs to avenge those losses if it wishes to join Perth Amboy as the only teams in Middlesex County/GMCT history to win four consecutive tournament titles.
“We’re going to approach the game as if it were a normal game,” St. Joseph coach Dave Turco said. “Unfortunately, we’re starting to judge St. Joe’s on championships, and I thought thought it was unfair that people thought we were going to be perfect from the start.”
The Falcons experienced a major turnover of their roster before the season began. Among those exiting were Quenton DeCosey, who’s playing at Temple. DeCosey finished his career second on St. Joseph’s all-time scoring list. Also departing was Danny Brix, who’s now playing at Stonehill.
Incomers included Wade Baldwin, the leading scorer in Somerset County last season, who transferred in from Immaculata. They also welcomed Marques Townes, who decided to jump from Cardinal McCarrick for a better education, and a better opportunity to win championships. Another addition, who came late in the game, was Raven Owen. Owen transferred to St. Joseph from Xaverian High School in Brooklyn.
East Brunswick’s story is much different. Coach Bo Henning returned five players with starting experience to this year’s roster, including a pair of Division I-bound talents in senior Rob Ukawuba (NJIT) and junior Amir Bell (Princeton). Ukawuba and Bell are mainstays in the Bears lineup for a fourth and third year, respectively.
As Henning explained, his team’s confidence has picked up strength throughout the course of the season.
“They’re just exuding plenty of confidence at this point,” Henning said, “and they see a great opportunity in front of them.
“We view this game as an opportunity to play a really strong opponent in a really great environment. We’re excited as hell for the opportunity, and our confidence comes from that fact that we know we deserve to be here. It should be a great game between two great teams.”
St. Joseph enters tonight’s final on a six-game win streak.
Sophomore Karl Towns has been dominant in the tournament, averaging 29.3 points, 17 rebounds and four blocks.
East Brunswick is coming off a 45-point rout of Woodbridge in the semifinals. Ukawuba is averaging 21.3 points per game in the tournament, and East Brunswick has held 14 of its 24 opponents to under 40 points this season.
As far as the coaches’ keys to victory go, Turco said, “The bottom line is protecting the basketball. The last two games we haven’t really executed well in the half court. We need to show more patience and play more to our strengths.”
“I think they (St. Joseph) run out pretty well off your mistakes like turnovers and bad shots,” said Henning. “We’re going to have to find a way to contain their talented scorers because you’re not going to stop them completely. We can’t let them go on big runs, and we need to be ourselves. We’re not slowing the game down because we like to play fast. Taking care of the basketball is always imperative and we’ve got to rebound and try and make them earn every offensive opportunity they get.”
When tonight’s game tips, St. Joseph senior co-captains Jimbo Long and James Ziemba will become the first players in the history of the GMCT to be part of four teams to reach the final.
East Brunswick will look to add a third GMCT title to its titles from 1996 and 1987.
St. Joseph is seeking a seventh GMCT title and is 6-12 all-time in the tournament final.