There was a lot of exciting hoops action in the Garden State this week, with the biggest storylines coming from highly magnified holiday tournaments.
JINGLE BELLS JUBILEE
No. 5 Teaneck entered the 4th Annual Playaz Basketball Club Jingle Bells Jubilee holiday tournament as one of the most talked-about teams in the state. Sure enough, after spending the week impressing thousands in attendance, the Highwaymen left in the same position.
Two nights after cruising past No. 8 St. Peter’s Prep, 60-45, in Wednesday’s semifinals, coach Jerome Smart’s boys recorded a big victory over rival Hackensack, 74-49, to win the event’s championship.
On Friday, Chris Jones poured in a game-high 27 points and junior center Neville Fincher punctuated an impressive week with a 15-point, 11-rebound and six-block performance for Teaneck, which improved to 6-0.
The Highwaymen not only rattled off more wins to further validate their rise in MSG Varsity’s current power rankings, but they also overcame some adversity – and, in turn, learned a lot about their depth.
Teaneck prides itself on riding the talents of the Core Four -- Jones, Fincher, point guard Shakir Lindsey and junior swingman Joel Hernandez – and hopes the group will capture another county title and orchestrate a deep playoff run.
However, the Highwaymen were without one of their biggest contributors on Wednesday, as Hernandez suffered a deep cut on his right hand and did not play. He did not play Friday either and is questionable for Sunday’s showdown against powerhouse St. Patrick.
“It happens,” Smart said. “It’s basketball. It’s just something to overcome. I thought a lot of guys stepped up. They played with a sense of urgency and played well defensively. That’s where it all starts.”
It also may be a telling sign of where this team could end up in March.
St. Peter’s had a tough week at the Jubilee, dropping two games in a row to Teaneck and Newark Tech, respectively. The Marauders (3-2) suffered a 15-point loss to the Highwaymen, who used their quickness on the perimeter to squeeze past the big St. Peter’s lineup, and then absorbed a 48-43 decision on Friday.
There’s no doubt the Marauders will plummet in this week’s rankings, but there’s no need to panic in Jersey City. They possess several key players who fill roles that are crucial for any true sectional title contender.
St. Patrick transfer Tyrone O’Garro, a Monmouth recruit who pulled down 33 rebounds in two games, has been fantastic thus far in a maroon and white uniform, while 6-foot-8 center Jordan Arthur is coming into his own as a force in the paint. In addition, guards Austin White and Tre Bell are solid contributors.
First-year head coach Todd Decker has his kids playing hard every second of every game; it’s just a matter of time before this squad gels and performs at a high level. Adding point guard Trevis Wyche, another transfer from St. Patrick who is sitting out the 30-day rule, will certainly help, too. The junior will make his St. Peter’s debut on January 16.
The basketball season is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s wise advice for those cheering on the Marauders.
Hackensack has shown a lot of potential in the early going, mostly due to the rising stock of sophomore swingman Rashard Figures.
There’s no doubt the Comets will vie for a spot in the Final Four of the Bergen County Jamboree, but competing with the likes of Teaneck – the probable top seed of the February tournament – will be difficult if recent history repeats itself.
This week, the two county rivals faced off twice, with the Highwaymen winning both by an average of 23 points.
Eventually, though, the Comets will grow – just like Teaneck did when Jones and company were rookies. For Figures, he already is beginning to feel like more of a leader.
“I’ve been feeling that way ever since the end of last year, my freshman year,” the 6-foot-5 Figures said. “I think we can go far if we play hard every single possession. “
Head coach Aaron Taylor had nothing but sterling things to say about his budding superstar and how his growth will help Hackensack’s fellow underclassmen blossom.
“Rashard is our guy,” he said. “He takes doubles and allows his teammates to make plays. He’s going to get us over the hump.”
If you want a new player to keep a close eye on, go watch Newark Tech’s Abel Yekeh.
In the team’s 78-73 overtime loss to Hackensack on Wednesday, the 6-foot-6 power forward recorded 16 points and 18 rebounds. He followed up with a quiet, eight-point, 11-rebound effort on Friday, but there’s no doubting his talent.
Yekeh is a horse; a well-built bruiser who has worked hard to develop a soft shooting touch. He also never takes a play off, a characteristic that will eventually have mid-major colleges salivating.
NEWARK PUBLIC SCHOOLS TOURNAMENT
University had itself quite a week at the Newark Public Schools holiday tournament. First, it opened tons of eyes by knocking off top-seeded East Side and then conducted a great encore by blowing by Shabazz on Friday.
The Phoenix are an interesting bunch. They don’t have any players that jump out at you, don’t have any players over 6-foot-4, and have a bevy of underclassmen in their rotation. It’s just attributed to the great teachings of a well-kept program.
The top player in the event, however, came from the runners up as Shabazz senior guard Mike Reid stole the show with two spectacular outings.
Reid, a Division I recruit, recorded 16 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in Wednesday’s semifinal win over Newark Vocational and then registered a game-high 29 points in Friday’s 54-45 loss.
The kid does it all; just don’t ask him to gloat.
“I don’t ever want to say I lead my team,” he said. “We all have our different roles and we do them together. It’s all about how we play our roles.”
Reid entered the tournament having averaged 18.5 points this season and looks to lead the Bulldogs to a Cinderella playoff run come February. It’s not a stretch to say this team will compete with the best of them in the late stages of winter, simply because it will have the best player on the floor in many instances.
Several colleges have offered the point guard. “Hopefully more will come,” he smiled.
Speaking of Shabazz senior guard Mike Reid, he said VCU, Stony Brook and Virginia Tech have offered.
Hackensack sophomore swingman Rashard Figures has garnered interest from Georgetown recently. The 6-foot-4 swingman, who is considered a top-five player in New Jersey for his class, mentioned USC, Rutgers, Seton Hall, George Mason, Iona and Boston College as programs who have shown interest.
According to one source, St. Joseph and VCU are going after St. Patrick junior guard Jared Nickens the hardest.
St. Peter’s Prep junior Jordan Arthur, a transfer from Newark Tech, has received interest from Miami, St. Joseph and Florida State. The 6-foot-8 forward said Fordham has recently entered the equation.
KICKS AND UNIS
Several Shabazz players wore red and green socks and sneakers to celebrate the holiday season in Wednesday’s semifinals against Newark Vocational, but opted for more subtle selections in the finals.
Speaking of Shabazz, the team sported very sharp white jerseys that ditched the traditional school name on the front. Instead, the uniforms advertised slang for its location. Very, very cool touch.
Then on Friday, the Bulldogs wore new alternate jerseys which were, um, very yellow. Somehow, they pull them off nicely, though. The eye-popping color gives the team a fresh identity, while having white lettering with black trim, and black numbers with white trim, is unique.
Back in mid-December, when four student-athletes came to our offices for the MSG Varsity The Magazine cover photo shoot, St. Benedict’s Prep point guard Tyler Ennis admitted he “has something planned” for his sneaker choice against St. Anthony on Sunday. You’d better believe those photos will be in next week’s edition.
Happy New Year.
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