by ANDREW GARDA
JERSEY CITY — Before the Immaculate Conception High School boys basketball team destroyed Hudson Catholic on the court in the fourth quarter of the Lions’ 60-49 win in the NJSIAA North Jersey, Non-Public B quarterfinals Thursday night, senior Jalen Carey and sophomore Zion Bethea played a different type of game to warm up.
“One thing we do, it’s called 2-ball,” Carey said after the win. “It’s like ‘All Around the World’ and we just compete with each other. Me and him always team up, me rebounding him and him getting his shots up. I told him after the game, we might need to do this more.”
Whatever it’s called, head coach Jimmy Salmon had better keep them doing it because the result was another significant win, anchored by a big nights from Bethea, who scored 21 points, and Carey, who had 18. At one point in the fourth quarter Carey and Bethea took turns setting up one another for 3-point shots to add to an already big lead for IC.
Certainly, the fifth-seeded Lions (20-8) will need every point they can manage this Saturday, when they visit top-seeded Roselle Catholic in the North B semifinals. Tip-off is scheduled for noon.
“I’m proud. I’ve only been here for three years and in 72 hours to beat [Patrick School in the North B first round] and Hudson is an accomplishment,” Salmon said. “I’m very proud of us right now.”
Hudson Catholic came into the Yanitelli Center at Saint Peter’s University as the favorite, ranked No. 2 in the state.
The reality is, HC looked bad shooting the ball all night, and there seemed like there was a lid on the basket. Even when they were on a roll — as they were in the second quarter when they outscored IC 12-8 — the Hawks threw up too many bad shots which clanked off the rim.
Credit to Immaculate’s defense — Hudson Catholic had a hard time getting a clean look at the basket and rarely had an uncontested shot or a smooth transition.
Immaculate was often able to take advantage of Hudson Catholic’s miscues and misses, attacking the glass and then swiftly transitioning to offense, where for most of the night they were able to convert for points.
The only time that didn’t happen was in the last four minutes of the second quarter, which the Hawks closed out with an 8-0 run. During that stretch, IC looked a bit out of sorts, making bad passes and allowing Hudson Catholic to get too many second chances.
When guard Luthor Muhammad dropped a 3-point shot to pull the Hawks to within one, Salmon directed Carey to hang onto the ball for a full 1:10, not moving, not dribbling and not passing.
With ten seconds left, Cary got to the perimeter and fired off a three, but missed.
While the move was likely to try and preserve some momentum for the Lions and keep HC from taking the lead going into the half, it didn’t seem to manage that as Immaculate came out a little flat in the third quarter.
That changed when senior Justin Winston let loose with a thunderous dunk to set off an 11-4 run to close the third.
The Lions never really looked back and the Hawks were never really in the game again, despite both teams scoring early and often in the final frame.
Both Bethea and Carey had huge second halves — Carey scored 13 of his 18 points during the last two quarters — but the former was the real story. As Carey and Winston — normally the two most critical pieces for this team’s success — struggled, Bethea carried the Lions, dropping ten points, including a pair of 3s from long range, to keep the Lions in front.
“For him, as a sophomore, to step up big like this? It’s big for us and the program,” Carey said.
Carey said the advantage of having guys like Bethea cannot be overstated.
“That’s the thing about our team,” he said. “We’ve got a great bench. Everybody can do things, everybody can put the ball in the hole. If me and Justin don’t have a big night, we know one of our guys is going to pick us up. And that’s what Zion did today.”
Salmon agreed that the bench producing is a massive help.
“Every day it’s been somebody else,” Salmon said. “Tonight it was Zion. And he’s only a sophomore.”
“I just really wanted us to win this game today,” Bethea said. “So I just did whatever I could to help us get the ‘W’ today.”
“He was huge, obviously,” Salmon said of Bethea’s night. “Whenever he works out and gets shots up the day before a game, he’s had big games. So last night, we reminded him about that and he worked out with one of our coaches, and he shot the hell out of it tonight. He was big.”
With Bethea in the mix, Carey and Winston were both able to cause trouble for the Hawks defenders, who rarely seemed to know which way to go when the Lions moved into the offensive zone. If HC went after Carey, Bethea would hurt them. If they pivoted to Bethea, Winston stepped up.
“When both guys are shooting the way they shot tonight,” Salmon said of Carey and Bethea, “we’re a tough cover.”
The Lions will continue to need production from guys like Bethea as well as Carey and Winston as they take on Roselle Catholic, the top seeded team in the bracket. Roselle has scored 90 and 101 points in the first two games of the tournament, wrecking both Koinonia and Christ the King in short order.
Despite two big wins, everyone on the Lions know they have a very tough challenge on Saturday, and that their work is far from over.
“We’re back at it [Friday], 2:30,” Bethea said. “Practice, get focused and get ready for Roselle Catholic.”