FRANKLIN (Somerset) – John Michael Mea began the season in the shadows of the Gill St. Bernard’s offense. The senior had a low scoring average and did not look like his typical aggressive self. After a slow start to the new campaign, Mea’s coaches and teammates talked to him and made sure he became more assertive.
During the absence of the Knights star player, Tyus Battle, who sat out the first 14 games with a foot injury, Mea answered the calling and began to carry his team on offense. Mea was in an unfamiliar role because he was not relied on to score during his previous two seasons of varsity basketball, but Mea made an easy transition into the go-to guy for the Knights.
“I consider myself a pass first guard,” Mea said. “Last year I didn’t score that much and my sophomore year was the same. This year, during the first four or five games, I was only averaging around four points. We were kind of struggling. The coaches talked to me and some of the guys talked to me, and I realized maybe I had to change the mentality of my game. That is kind of what I did during the last two months of the season.”
With Battle once again sidelined after reaggravated his foot injury during Gill St. Bernard’s match up against St. Benedict’s on Wednesday, Mea returned to his role as the floor general, on his way to 16 points on the night. The seniors performance helped the Knights overcome Ridge in the Somerset County Tournament final, beating the Red Devils, 48-39.
“I think he is one of the top three point guards in the state,” Gill St. Bernard’s head coach Mergin Sina said. “If people want to argue with me, I will say otherwise. He’s held this team together all year. We’ve been in games against some very talented players and I think he’s outplayed most of them.”
Mea continues to prove his coaches theory right. The floor general made some acrobatic shots throughout the game, but his two three pointers in the third quarter ultimately put the final touches on the competition, as Gill St. Bernard’s extended their lead to double digits.
“I love coach Mergin,” Mea said. “I’ve known him since I was eight years old. I don’t plan on playing in college, so this meant so much more for me personally. This is my last chance; this is the last time I’m going to play organized basketball. It means everything that he has that much confidence in me.”
Mea was not alone on the court; it was a group effort for the Knights. Michael Morreale, who has turned into a scoring threat over night, continued his stellar play. Morreale opened some eyes during Gill St. Bernard’s semifinal victory over Rutgers Prep. After patiently sitting behind upper classman for most of the year, Morreale is finally receiving a chance to shine.
Julius Stoma was second on the team in scoring, tallying 13 points. Stoma also had the difficult task in guarding Max Mahoney when Gill St. Bernard’s switch into a matchup zone. After falling behind during the first quarter, coach Sina’s decision to make a change on defense made all the difference in the world.
“That’s our trademark all year,” Sina said about his team’s defense. “We had some issues on the offensive end, but I changed some strategies from the past with my players. This team has really kept games close through defense.”
Although Ridge did not play their best basketball, they kept the contest close. The Red Devils had several players in foul trouble throughout the afternoon, but continued to grind. Dan McCreesh led the way, flashing his aggressive ability on offense and defense. The senior, who has started in every game the past two seasons, finished with a team-high 16 points.
The story of the night for Ridge was the silent play of Mahoney. The big man ran into a physical team that did not give him much room for error. Without Mahoney’s offense, the Red Devils were not the same team. They will now begin their run at a sectional title on Monday against North Hunterdon.
“The only good thing about losing is you are not collecting uniforms at the end of the game,” Ridge head coach Brian Feath said. “State tournament time comes, you lose, you are collecting uniforms and the season is over. We have a game in 48 hours and we will get back in the gym tomorrow. This will be in the rearview mirror.”
For a majority of the night the 2013 SCT final echoed through the heads of everyone in the building. An underdog Ridge squad outplayed the far more talented Gill St. Bernard’s group, and completed one of the biggest upsets in county tournament history.
The Knights made sure it would be a different story on Saturday afternoon. After playing one of the toughest schedules in New Jersey during the regular season, even without Battle, Sina’s team was ready. With the win, the Gill St. Bernard’s ended a two year drought of not winning a county final.
The wait is over. Gill St. Bernard’s can now hoist the trophy, and rightfully so.