by Andrew Garda
On paper, the 76-69 win by No.1-seeded Immaculate High School’s boys basketball team over No. 8-seeded Payne Tech in the Essex County Tournament might look like a relatively painless victory.
For head coach Jimmy Salmon, it was anything but.
Payne Tech started things off with a 9-2 run over the course of the first three and a half minutes, and that two points for the Lions didn’t come until the first three minutes of the opening frame occurred.
“The first time we played them, we had a similar game,” Salmon said after the win. “I don’t know what it is with us, but we start quarters badly unfortunately, and have allowed other teams to get a good start. Then we’re playing from behind. Maybe there’s something we need to do differently as a team. I don’t know. It’s frustrating, and I’m just glad we had enough to overcome it.”
Immaculate quickly righted the ship and went on a 12-4 run to end the quarter, building a 21-13.
It was an ominous bellwether for Immaculate, though, as they would continue to allow Payne to get back into the game every time it looked like they would leave them in the dust.
“I thought it was a game of runs,” Salmon said. “Our press worked for a while and then, at one point, they were picking it apart and scoring on it. It was almost like ‘pick your poison,’ so in the first half I think they scored 70 percent of their points against our press. Even though we scored a lot off of it [too], it was almost like a 50-50.”
After heading to the locker-room with a 41-31 lead, Immaculate started off the third quarter with back to back baskets, but things started going south right after that, when PT came out of a timeout.
Payne Tech immediately went on a 17-9 run, cutting the lead to four and forcing Salmon to call a timeout.
When play resumed, Immaculate stole the ball from Payne Tech, and Donta Davis found the net, but that didn’t give them the momentum. Instead the two teams traded baskets for the remaining three minutes, after which Immaculate was clinging to a 58-53 lead.
Payne Tech continued to dog Immaculate’s every footstep, always clawing their way back into the game when Immaculate seemed to have a comfortable lead. However, Payne also was fouling to try and regain control of the ball, and soon they were in double-bonus territory, meaning Immaculate was guaranteed two shots every time they were fouled.
A struggle for the Lions all season has been their free throws. In the past, Immaculate has been deadly from the charity stripe, but not so this year.
“For the first four years I’ve been here, that’s been a strength,” Salmon said. “Now it’s a struggle.”
While it has been an issue — and was again Saturday as in the first half, the Lions missed almost as many free throws as they made, going 8-for-14 — the free throw shooters came up big to close down the game, with Zion Bethea, Zakai Zeigler and Jayden Brown going 6-for-6 to close the game out.
As always, the play of Bethea loomed large for the Lions. The Hofstra commit had his eight game of 20 points or more of the year, with 20 points, and 7 rebounds. Amar’e Marshall had 20 points as well, adding eight rebounds as well. Zeigler was the third highest scorer with 15 points, and seven assists, while Zayon Marsh dominated the boards, accumulating 13 rebounds.
Overall, Immaculate manhandled Payne Tech at the glass, out-rebounding them 44 to 32.
“The strength of the team have been our guards, and I think they won it for us at the end,” Salmon said.
They’ll need more of the same from their guards, as well as cleaner play, when they welcome East Orange to the gym for the ECT semifinals on Tuesday, Feb. 18.