by Andrew Garda
ROSELLE — A roller coaster week for the Immaculate Conception High School boys basketball team ended in a somewhat disappointing fashion Saturday afternoon with a 92-63 loss to top-seeded Roselle Catholic in the semifinals of the NJSIAA North Jersey, Non-Public B tournament.
The Lions (20-9) had earned two mightily impressive victories to reach the semifinal round, knocking off defending Tournament of Champions winner Patrick School in the opening round and hammering an excellent Hudson Catholic team in the quarterfinals.
While the end of the game was disappointing for a team with Tournament of Champions aspirations, the effort in the tournament overall capped a year which served notice that IC had arrived under third-year coach Jimmy Salmon, the AAU coaching legend who took over a moribund program at the tiny Cottage Place school and brought in incredibly talented players like Syracuse-bound senior point guard Jalen Carey and junior power forward Justin Winston.
“For those guys, who have been high-caliber players since elementary school, to come here and legitimize what we were doing as a program,” Salmon said, “We can never thank them enough.”
Playing arguably the state’s toughest schedule against a slate of Top 20-caliber opponents, Immaculate won 20 games, finished third in a highly competitive Super Essex Conference-American Division and reached the program’s first Essex County Tournament final since 1961.
But this talented IC team seemed to have no answer for a dominant Roselle squad, who scored more than 90 points for their third consecutive game.
Against the length and athleticism of RC, the Lions seemed almost intimidated. They settled for perimeter shots in the first quarter, and very rarely followed those shots up for an attempt at a rebound. Roselle had no such hesitation, and often scored on a second chance, if they even missed the first shot.
This was a marked change from what IC did the over the course of the previous two games, where IC had succeeded by being dominant inside, attacking the rim and battling at the glass for rebounds.
It seemed on Saturday, though, that they were outmatched. Immaculate never got into an offensive rhythm, especially Carey.
“They were really smart,” head coach Jimmy Salmon said. “They put a smaller guy on Jalen, and he got frustrated. And the guys look up to him, so when he gets frustrated, they can too.”
While Carey did end the day with 20 points, 4 rebounds and a pair of assists, he did look frustrated by Roselle’s Josh Pierre-Louis, who was often guarding him. Pierre-Louis harrassed Carey at every turn, throwing off the Lions in transition and on offense in general.
Another thing Immaculate had done well during their two other NJSIAA wins last week was finding a player to step up who wasn’t named Carey or Justin Winston.
Roselle put and end to that as well. While Zion Bethea and Elijah Hutchins-Everett scored 10 and 11 points respectively, they weren’t able to do so consistently.
Against Hudson Catholic, Bethea had carried the Immaculate offense in the first half when Carey and Winston were cold. It prevented the Lions from falling too far behind, buying them time for the top scorers to get going.
On Saturday, that didn’t happen. The Lions had a hard time finding anyone open on the floor. Even when they did, the lack of presence in the paint was a problem.
All of this was compounded by the inability of the IC defense to slow down — much less stop — Roselle from scoring almost at will in the first half.
Roselle Catholic star and LSU commit Naz Reid was a massive problem in the key, and try as he might, Hutchins-Everett couldn’t keep him from getting to the rim. When Reid struggled, Pierre-Louis or Kahlil Whitney would get the ball at the perimeter and fire off a shot. Whitney, who has a dozen offers from Division 1 programs, scored 29 points and was tenacious on the glass, leading his team with seven rebounds.
Despite the big 41-24 first half deficit, Salmon still felt his team could come back.
“I felt like we were going to have a run,” Salmon said. “I was saving time outs waiting for it to come, but it never did.”
In part, that was because while Immaculate was able to score more frequently in the third quarter, Roselle managed to match them basket-for-basket.
The Lions’ third quarter was their best offensive effort of the game, but again, the defense just couldn’t slow Roselle down. IC scored 26, but RC scored 28 and Immaculate actually lost a little ground.