Legendary Coach Bob Hurley Wins 'National' Championship
NEW BRUNSWICK - Nearly every high school basketball fan in the state wanted to see it.
But only 8,000 got the opportunity to watch the top two teams in the country - No. 1 St. Patrick's of Elizabeth and No. 2 St. Anthony of Jersey City - square off at Rutgers' Louis Brown Athletic Center on Wednesday night.
Those who were lucky enough to score a ticket were treated to an amazing display from both teams. The Celtics (St. Patrick's) and Friars (St. Anthony) lived up to the hype, producing a terrific game destined to go down as one of the most memorable in New Jersey high school basketball history.
"This game turned out to be everything it was supposed to be," St. Anthony coach Bob Hurley said after the Friars' 62-45 upset victory. "Two great high school teams playing a great game."
The muddy parking lots outside the stadium were filled more than two hours before the 8 p.m. tipoff, and the bleachers were just as crowded. Some were there to see Seton Hall Prep earn an overtime win over St. Peter's and advance to the state Non-Public A championship game against St. Augustine Prep. But the overwhelming majority were waiting anxiously to see the Celtics (26-1) and Friars (30-0), two traditional state powerhouses that topped every major national poll before the game. There is no national tournament for high school basketball.
The excitement level was so high, the expectations so great, that even the pregame warmups by the respective teams earned standing ovations.
"We've played all over the country, but this game was different," St. Patrick's coach Kevin Boyle said. "There was a buzz in the air before the game. There was an electricity that you don't usually see at a high school game. And the crowd was just unbelievable. We're used to playing in front of 2,000 people in a high school gym, not 8,000."
The official prize - the North Jersey Non-Public A title that St. Anthony gained with its win - was secondary to the action. Almost every possession generated a seemingly constant chorus of "oohs" and "aahs" and standing ovations from fans.
Rutgers coach Mike Rice, fresh from a controversial loss to St. John's in the Big East tournament earlier in the day, returned to campus in time to see his top recruit, St. Anthony point guard Myles Mack, dazzle the crowd with electric moves and timely shooting.
Mack was sick with a cold but scored a team-high 19 points, grabbed a game-high five steals and dished out four assists.
"At first I was so caught up in everything that I probably took some shots I didn't need to take," Mack said. "But after that, I just relaxed and let the game come to me."
St. Patrick's lineup featured senior Michael Gilchrist, a 6-foot-8 forward with arms so long he could almost tie his sneakers without bending over. University of Kentucky coach John Calipari showed up to see his prized recruit. Gilchrist, who was averaging 20 points a game, was held to seven points but snared 14 rebounds.
Both stars also had deep and talented supporting casts. The teams were loaded with outside shooters who drained 3-pointers as if they were layups, and slashers who leaped so high they hit their elbows on the rim.
Gilchrist was joined by senior forward Derrick Morgan, who might have earned himself a college scholarship with his 26-point performance.
St. Anthony's countered with 6-7 forward Kyle Anderson. Anderson, who is considered the top junior player in the state, showed why he is so highly regarded by scoring 11 points, snaring seven rebounds and dealing five assists. He also blocked two shots.
"This game meant so much to us," Anderson said. "Everybody considered us the underdog, and that made us play as hard as we could and continue to fight the whole game."
The Friars face perhaps an even tougher fight later this week.
They will be heavily favored to win the state Non-Public B crown against either Bishop McCarrick or Gloucester Catholic. But they may be hard-pressed to keep their focus and regain their mental edge after playing such an emotionally draining game against St. Pat's.
And if they win that title, more challenges await at the state's Tournament of Champions.
"We just beat the hottest team in the world, and it was a monumental win for us," Hurley said. "But it won't mean as much if we don't keep this going.
"Kevin (Boyle) and I talked about this before the game. We both said that whoever won this game has the responsibility to keep winning. As great as this game was, we don't want to let it wind up as the high point of our season."