by Andrew Garda
WEST ORANGE—Immaculate Conception High School’s boys basketball team had the wrong kind of momentum coming into their road game against No. 5 Bergen Catholic on Wednesday, Jan. 30.
The team had just lost back-to-back games to Seton Hall Prep on Jan. 23 and Rutgers Prep on Jan. 25 before righting the ship by overwhelming Payne Tech on Jan. 29.
Meanwhile, the Crusaders (13-3, 8- Big North) had lost just two games all season, neither of which came at the hands of a New Jersey team.
Naturally that meant the Lions (12-6, 5-1 SEC), ranked No. 10 by NJ.com, would build an early 50-25 lead and never look back on their way to a massive 88-78 upset.
The Lions were led by a 31 point game from Zakai Zeigler, followed by Jayden Brown’s 21 points. Zion Bethea had 16 points and Amar’e Marshall scored 12, while Zayon Marsh 12 rebounds.
ICHS held off a well-played second half from BC to win their biggest game of the season, and give them a foundation to touch on whenever they have doubts heading into the Essex County Tournament as the top seed.
Less than a week before ICHS was watching their win streak end at the hands of Seton Hall Prep in a 69-64 loss, a game that was rarely in doubt on Jan. 23.
It was fitting that the Pirates ended the streak, given that Immaculate’s seven-game run kicked off when they beat the Pirates at home 74-57 on Jan. 5.
Back then, the Lions ran out to a 25-15 lead in the first quarter and never looked back, but the Pirates were able to turn the tables early in this game, building 13-2 lead in the first five minutes on the strength of a trio of Mike Curran three-point baskets.
Meanwhile, the Pirates did an admirable job of limiting Bethea, keeping him bottled up as best they could and not allowing him to take over the game.
The Lions ended the quarter down by just three points, but never truly found their rhythm.
“It’s a tale of two cities,” Lions head coach Jimmy Salmon said after the game. “Last time we played them we got off to a really good start against them and they never recovered. Today, they got off to a really good start against us, and we never recovered.”
Despite never really taking control of the floor, ICHS stayed in the game, outscoring the Pirates in the second quarter 10-9 and staying even with them at 20 apiece in the third.
Bethea totaled 14 points, but six of those came from the foul line in the closing portion of the fourth quarter. While he had trouble breaking free for his own shots, Bethea was still able to make a difference, grabbing eight balls off the glass.
With their focal point contained, other Lions needed to step up, which many did.
Marshall led the team in scoring with 22 points, including six three-point shots, while Marsh led the team with 14 rebounds.
However, every time the Lions closed on the Seton Hall lead, the Pirates found a way to generate a response, generating a turnover, or making a big shot. The was compounded by the fact that for all the scoring the Lions did, they missed far too many easy buckets, especially early.
The misses seemed to come at the worst times, and occasionally derail otherwise promising offensive surges. Those hiccups, in turn, could give the opposition time to pull away.
“It’s just something we just have to try and fix,” Salmon said of the consistency. “We got a little time left. Playoffs are starting real soon, so it’s back to the drawing board.”
There was definitely at least some improvement on Saturday, Jan. 25, when the Lions lost on the road to an undefeated Rutgers Prep team, 68-65.
The No. 7 team in the state, Rutgers Prep surged in the second quarter, outscoring Immaculate 15-8. The Lions came back strong in the third quarter though, pulling to within three points. They then kept chipping away, finally tying the game at 63-63 late in the fourth.
The Argonauts’ Trey Patterson dropped a three to give his team the lead again, but Immaculate made it a one-point game moments later and with Bethea driving the lane for a layup, looked to be about to steal the win.
That is, until Otega Oweh blocked the Hofstra commit from behind, grabbed the ball and threw down a dunk at the buzzer for the win.
ICHS was led by Brown’s 20 points, with Zakai Ziegler scoring 16, and Bethea finishing with 13. Bethea and Marsh were again strong on the glass, with the latter’s 12 rebounds leading the team and the former’s 10 right behind him.
The Lions got back on the right track Tuesday night, overwhelming Payne Tech, 97-66, to stay in first place in the American Division.
Marshall scored a game-high 27 points and added 8 assists, 4 rebounds and 3 steals to lead the Lions, who jumped out to a 49-30 halftime lead. Marsh led all rebounders with 17 to go with four blocks, and Bethea (18 points), Brown (17 points) and Donta Davis (15 points) all reached double figures in scoring.
Then the Lions headed to Bergen for their game against the Crusaders and, ultimately, a huge win.
The Lions are back in American Division play Tuesday, Feb. 4, when they visit Montclair High.