by Andrew Garda
The tipping point for the winning team in a game doesn’t often come when one of their key players has to leave the court due to foul trouble, but for the Immaculate Conception boys basketball team, that’s what happened during the third quarter of their 73-62 Essex County win over North Star Academy on Saturday, Feb. 9.
Senior Nick Jordain found himself the subject of a foul call, which forced head coach Jimmy Salmon to take him off the floor for a bit.
Yet, sometimes from misfortune comes opportunity.
“It allowed us to play four guards and they were playing four guards,” Salmon said after the game. “So, we were able to match things up defensively a little better, whereas in the first half, that kind of worked to the other team’s advantage a little bit.”
Playing small against the quick Knights guards allowed the Lions both to use their own speed to good effect, as well as the small size of the home court. While still regulation in size, the Lions’ court is on the small side of the spectrum and there is very little space along the edges of the floor.
That makes things feel tighter than they really are, as well as makes it harder for bigger teams to maneuver along the hardwood. Sometimes, Salmon said, that works against ICHS, which often features a big lineup.
This time out it seemed to favor the Lions, especially late when North Star struggled to find comfortable spots on the floor to shoot from.
During the third quarter, Immaculate’s familiarity and comfort on the court, along with the sharp play of their four-guard setup, helped them outscore NSA 22-16.
Fatigue set in for the Knights during the final quarter and ICHS pulled ahead for good. North Star’s shots hit the rim without going in too often, and they repeatedly failed on second and third chances.
Immaculate had no such issues, and while they throttled the offense back a little, the shots they took often found the net.
While North Star out-scored Immaculate 18-15 in the final frame, it was mostly because the Lions chose to kill the clock more than drive the ball to the basket.
Which means Immaculate survives an opponent they knew almost nothing about and will advance to the next round of the Essex County Tournament.
North Star Academy had been an unknown. ICHS hadn’t played the school in several years, and when they went to scout the Knights’ preliminary round game against East Orange, they found the game had already been played at 4 p.m., rather than the time NJ.com had posted of 7 p.m.
There was no game to scout, no film to watch. Salmon said there was really only one thing to do.
“We went and played the game,” he said. “Saw who their better players were during the game, and then made defensive adjustments accordingly.”
The adjustments involved slowing NSA leading scorer Hakeem Wilson, who was very quiet for huge stretches of the game, and held to just 10 points in the second half and four in the final quarter. Salmon praised all of his guards, but especially singled out the play of Donta Davis and Zakai Ziegler.
“We got great pressure on the ball from Donte and Zakai guarding their guards and kept them out of the lane in the third quarter,” he explained. “That’s when we were able to separate a little bit.”
Ziegler’s 12 points as well as 11 points from Amar’e Marshall supplemented the usual strong play from Elijah Hutchins-Everett (13 points) and Zion Bethea (15).
The second-seeded Lions had a pair of games before they take on 7-seeded Livingston. First they cruised past Newark Central with an 82-52 win, before taking on West Side on Wednesday in a repeat of a thrilling game between the top-ranked teams on February 2.
No matter who they play, though, Salmon knows the formula to win is the same.
“Not really [win] off of a scheme or anything, just playing a regular basketball game, looking at situations, looking at the matchups and just utilizing what’s there.”