On paper, it seems like mission impossible. How can the Ridge High School boys basketball team possibly upset Gill St. Bernard’s in Saturday’s Somerset County Tournament final?
The heavily favored Knights, who are seeking a three-peat, have steamrolled local competition since their full roster became eligible in mid-January. Their starting five includes three seniors who will play Division I ball next fall and a freshman phenom who is receiving scholarship offers from all over. Just last week, they went to Ridge and posted a 73-56 win.
And the underdogs’ history in this tournament is bleak. The last upset came in 1998, when Bridgewater-Raritan beat Franklin after losing both regular-season meetings to the Warriors. The last monumental shocker — the kind this would be — took place when Bound Brook stunned Bridgewater West in 1990.
So how can Ridge possibly keep it close when the ball goes up at 3 p.m. at Bridgewater-Raritan? Two coaches who faced both teams in the past couple of weeks, Hillsborough’s Ian Progin and Bridgewater-Raritan’s Gene McAteer, gave the same answer: Slow it down.
“It’s really about trying to control the tempo of the game,” Progin said. “Besides having a lot of skill and a lot of talent, Gill is so well conditioned. You look at their kids and they never look tired.”
Progin’s Raiders did that to a degree in their last meeting the Knights, but it’s hard to maintain for 32 minutes. They ultimately lost by 13.
“If they score 65 or more, it will be hard for Ridge to win,” Progin said. “But you’ve got to play. I don’t know what it says to your kids if you tell them to hold the ball. You’ve got to play, but you’ve got to play smart. That means taking care of the basketball because they turn turnovers into points — and a lot of times those points are threes and not twos.”
That summarized Ridge’s first crack at Gill. They came out energized and traded shots with the Knights, taking a 26-25 lead with just under three minutes left in the first half. But then Gill sprung its full-court trap, sparking an 11-1 run before the break. It never got closer.
“You have to minimize the runs Gill makes,” McAteer said. “With their 3-pointers and now their offensive rebounds, they score so quickly and from so many areas.”
McAteer’s Panthers nearly upset the Knights in the regular season last year, and beat them handily this season before transfers Austin Colbert and Chris Jenkins became eligible.
“Whatever it takes to slow Gill down some — it could be running offense a little bit longer, or some type of (zone) defense,” McAteer said. “I just think for a normal team in Somerset County, even a good one like Ridge, if you’re going up and down with Gill that’s probably not a good idea.”
McAteer said a big part of playing Gill is mental, getting over the intimidation factor.
“If Ridge can learn from the last game it’s definitely an advantage,” McAteer said. “If they can keep it close well into the second half, Ridge can relax and not have the weight of the world on their shoulders. That pressure (on Gill) will seep in, but not if it’s a 20-point game.”
On paper it’s easy to write off Ridge, but as McAteer and Progin pointed out, the Red Devils didn’t open the season 21-0 by accident. Their teamwork is as good as anyone’s.
“They have to trust each other and believe in each other, and sometimes that wins over talent,” Progin said. “It’s only one game. If they played 10 times, maybe Gill would win eight or nine of those times. But there’s always that one.”