Bob Hurley realizes a championship run and rise in the national rankings consists of improving every day and finding ways to develop an identity throughout the long journey. He noted early last season his team wasn’t ready to contend for a title, but was developing the sterling habits of a true contender. This season is no different.
In the most anticipated regular-season showdown of the season, though, St. Anthony may have figured out the precious formula that could carry the Friars to another trip to the Tournament of Champions final game.
Hurley watched his bunch tap into a trusted philosophy of relying on every single member of the floor, rather than riding the talents of one individual superstar. On Sunday evening at the New Year’s Jump-off Classic at Hackensack High School, a team effort was needed.
Kyle Anderson recorded 13 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, Jimmy Hall chipped in 12 points and Josh Brown, who finished with 10 points, made a big defensive play in the last second by tipping Tyler Ennis’ last-ditch 3-point attempt to help No. 1 St. Anthony escape No. 2 St. Benedict’s Prep, 51-50, in thrilling fashion.
The Friars (7-0) trailed marginally throughout, but outscored the more athletic Gray Bees, 17-10, in the fourth quarter to extend its current winning streak to 40 games dating to the 2009-10 campaign.
“We came back, and you’re not going to overwhelm a team like that,” Hurley said. “They have great players. In the second half we started to play together, and defensively, this is one of the best teams I’ve had.”
Melvin Johnson poured in a game-high 25 points and point guard Tyler Ennis contributed 14 for St. Benedict’s (9-1), which took a slim 25-23 lead into the half.
The Gray Bees held a 40-32 advantage after the third, but wilted late in the final stanza. Hallice Cooke drained a 3-pointer to pull St. Anthony even at 48-48 with 2:48 remaining and Brown’s put-back off a missed attempt handed his team a lead it wouldn’t relinquish 41 seconds later.
Ennis converted two free throws to cut the St. Benedict’s deficit to one point with 19 seconds on the clock, but on the ensuing possession, failed to get his potential game-winning shot over the extended fingertips of Brown.
“We’re a better defensive team than last year, but offense came a lot easier then,” Anderson said. “We’re going to work on that, but then maybe we’ll be even better than last year.”
It’d be a tall order for the Friars to transform into a team far superior to the one that clinched the Tournament of Champions crown and the national championship, which was truly earned by toppling top-ranked St. Patrick in the North Non-Public B title game on March 9.
Still, there is reason to believe such a lofty goal can be reached. St. Anthony certainly has a different look, due in large part to being without point guard Myles Mack. Anderson, a UCLA commit, has several ample cogs around him, though, and that has spawned the idea of executing a worthy encore to the magical 2010-11 year.
“Last year, we were still trying to figure out Myles Mack and Kyle Anderson. This time, we’re kind of going through a little withdrawal from missing their experience together,” Hurley said. “I think we’re going to figure it out, and the biggest thing is going to be trusting each other, getting quality shots and playing much better.
“Tariq Carey can do some things, Hallice Cooke can do some things, Josh Brown is an interesting player who can do some things and tonight Jerome Frink was in foul trouble so couldn’t be much of a factor.”
While each member of the Friars supporting cast has yet to figure out his role in the offense, Anderson has remained a rock of consistency.
“He’s worked to become a better defender and he’s a kid who loves to score,” Hurley said of his All-American. “The sky is the limit for him, but people have to be patient with his development because he’s such a unique player.”
Nevertheless, Anderson -- a 6-foot-8 hybrid playmaker with the rare ability to play both the point guard and forward positions at an elite level -- helped St. Anthony come out on top of this heated rivalry once again.
“We’re still a work in progress,” Hurley shrugged. “That’s a great team to beat when you’re not where you need to be.”
Brian Fitzsimmons is the award-winning author of Celtic Pride: How Coach Kevin Boyle Took St. Patrick to the Top of High School Basketball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @FitzWriter