The stars have aligned for a collision of high school basketball supernovas Thursday night at Monmouth University.
St. Joseph of Metuchen and Linden — powerhouses from bordering counties who’ve crossed paths only in scrimmages and summer-league ball — meet in the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions semifinals at 7:30 p.m.
The game itself needs no hype — either team could win the whole thing — but the spotlight will fall in the center of the action, where seniors Karl-Anthony Towns and Quadri Moore are poised for a big man battle of the ages.
Towns, a 7-footer who will play at Kentucky next season, is perhaps the best schoolboy power player ever in New Jersey. The 6-foot-8, Cincinnati-bound Moore is a dominant presence in his own right. They’ve skirmished in AAU ball and scrimmages, but this is their first interscholastic encounter. The stakes could not be higher.
“For me, I just want to defend the best player on the court and I think Quadri is going to be that for Linden,” Towns said. “It’s just really a great game for me because I don’t get many chances where I get to defend the best player, especially when he’s a forward.”
Both players said they know each other well through the year-round hardwood circuit. Not surprisingly, they get along. Both are good-natured despite the havoc they wreak on opponents.
“He’s a very good friend of mine; I talk to him often,” Moore said. “We play similar, although he’s a bit bigger. It will be a good matchup.”
Both players are matchup nightmares because they can step out and shoot 3-pointers with a sharpshooter’s accuracy. Both possess a playmaker’s passing touch and the unselfishness required to elevate teammates. Both are rugged defenders; Towns’ shot-blocking ability is off the charts.
“Quadri is skilled enough and can score enough from a variety of spots on the floor to give Karl trouble,” said N.J. Hoops publisher Jay Gomes, the state’s premier talent evaluator. “But on the other side, Quadri gives away a few inches and if Karl’s not in foul trouble it’s going to have to be a help situation.”
That’s where this game-within-the-game becomes part chess match. Even a player of Moore’s caliber is going to have a challenge matching up with Towns for 30 minutes. When these squads scrimmaged in early December, Moore did not defend Towns.
“They actually never matched up in the summer league or scrimmage,” St. Joseph coach Dave Turco said. “It’s going to be a good battle whether they are matched up against each other (or not), but just having them both on the floor makes both teams better, so it should be a classic.”
St. Joseph point guard Wade Baldwin thinks Towns will be extra motivated by the challenge.
“Every matchup he’s gone into where people doubted him, saying, you know, ‘I don’t think he can handle this person, that person,’ he shuts them down completely,” Baldwin said. “I know his season doesn’t want to end, so I know he’s going hard, and when he’s going hard I don’t know a lot of people that can stop him.”
Although they are excited to square off, both Towns and Moore made clear that this is a showdown of great teams first and foremost.
“I’m just going to go out and play my game and not try to overdo myself just to match up against Karl,” Moore said. “I’m just going to try and make it a good game and hopefully we’ll come out with a win.”
Added Towns, “People tend to (think) it’s the matchup, but it’s actually the game. This is win or go home. For us we are just really focused on making sure we win the game, not just on the matchup.”
That said, a lot of folks at Monmouth will have their vision trained on what promises to be an epic battle of big men.
“We’ll go out there and show our skills and hopefully we can lead our teams to victory,” Towns said. “It’s going to be a great game, a game I hope New Jersey can remember.”