Junior Dejourn Cook leaps up for the ball during Immaculate Conceptions’ 61-58 loss during the Hoop Group NJ Showcase on December 15. Cook led the team with five rebounds, and was the only defender who blocked a shot.

by Andrew Garda

CALDWELL—A good comeback can be the highlight of a sports story.

But you need to fall behind before you can come back, and sometimes the deficit is too much to overcome.

That was the case on Friday, when the Immaculate Conception boys basketball team fell to Seton Hall Prep, 61-58, after SHP went on an 18-6 run to close the third quarter, including scoring 9 unanswered points. The Pirates’ run gave them a 10-point lead by the start of the fourth quarter.

“We let one get away,” head coach Jimmy Salmon said after the loss in the Lions’ season opener, which doubled as the Hoop Group Tip-off Showcase at Mount St. Dominic.

Immaculate’s Jalen Carey lifts a ball into the hoop for a score during the Lions’ December 15 loss to Seton Hall Prep. The Syracuse commit scored 22 point.

Senior Jalen Carey led the Lions’ scoring with 22 points. The Syracuse commit also led the team with 4 points from free throws, and added 2 rebounds, a pair of assists and a pair of steals to his tally. Justin Winston, a 6-7 junior, scored the second most points with 15, including one from three-point range. Winston also contributed 2 steals and 3 rebounds.

No other Lions player scored in the double digits, with the third highest total being just 6 points from sophomore Raejon Figures. Meanwhile, three SHP players hit double digits, including senior Ashton Miller who scored 21.

The Lions were badly outplayed on the glass, snagging just 20 rebounds, compared with Seton Hall Prep’s 29. Dejourn Cook had the most with just 4, and nobody else on the team had more than 2.

“We can’t win if we don’t win the rebounding battle,” Salmon said.

Seton Hall Prep “definitely got way too many second-chance points,” Salmon said. “We know that you can’t leave those guys open because they’ve historically been great shooters and they proved that again tonight.”

Without good rebounding on the defensive end, the Lions’ fast-paced and up-tempo offense ground to a halt, especially in the second half.

“If you don’t rebound, you can’t run,” Salmon said. “That’s something we tried to preach to them all preseason and we’ll preach all year because that’s the key to our team. If we want to run, we’ve got to rebound.”

While the Pirates’ 18-6 run dug a hole for IC, the Lions didn’t just fall to the bottom of it and disappear.

They fought back.

Immaculate went on its own 14-7 run at the start of the fourth quarter, pulling to within a

Immaculate’s Justin Winston drives towards the basket for one of his six baskets during the Lions’ December 15 game against Seton Hall Prep. 

basket of SHP. Carey led the effort with 8 points while Winston scored 7. The Lions jumped ahead by 58-57, only to have the Pirates take the lead back a moment later when Immaculate was called for a foul. That sent SHP senior guard Jonah Benitez to the line because the Lions had more than 7 team fouls.

Benitez made both of his shots, pulling his team ahead, 59-58.

Shortly after that, the Lions fouled again, returning Benitez to the line, where he sank another free throw and extended the lead to 60-58.

With just 39.2 seconds left in the game, Salmon called a timeout to calm his team and give them a breather.

It would be one of three timeouts Salmon would use in less than a minute, each time trying to set up a play and find that last basket. But each time the Lions drove toward the basket, the Pirates countered and denied Immaculate a clear shot. With less than 10 seconds left, the Lions had the ball along the far sideline and were trying to inbound it. Clearly, they were trying to get it to Carey, but he was well covered. Ultimately, the pass went out of  out of bounds by Immaculate, giving the ball back to Seton Hall Prep.

And that was that.

“I’m proud of our second-half effort, but again, I don’t like the fact that we dug a hole that we just got too exhausted to overcome,” Salmon said. “That’s basically the story of the second half.”

Salmon knows he has a talented team, and he knows the players will fight hard each night. What he’s concerned with is getting into situations that require the team to work twice as hard to compete, much less win. That’s especially true in the brutally tough American Division of the Super-Essex Conference. Teams like Newark East Side, Columbia and yes, Seton Hall Prep, don’t leave much margin for error. If you fall behind, you will struggle.

Salmon said that it was “just too big a hole when you’re playing against a quality team like this.”