Undefeated Wood-Ridge has displayed so far this season a brilliant perimeter game led by Gary Writenour and Mike Gabney, strength in the middle with Vin O'Beirne and a swift pace that has left most opponents gasping for air by late in the third quarter.
The Blue Devils possess, without doubt, a bounty of attributes, not the least of which is the scrappy court direction and defense of seniors Matt Alvarez and Angel Colon.
Add it all up and that amounts to a lot of goodness for a Group 1 basketball program.
But what Wood-Ridge had lacked was a toe-to-toe, down-to-the-wire battle with which to truly test all of those assets, and its willpower, as well. The Blue Devils' closest game was a six-point win over Cresskill, and that was a full month ago. Every other outing was a showcase of sharp skills against overmatched opponents.
Until Sunday afternoon, that is, when Wood-Ridge squandered a big early lead and had to fight its way to a 70-64 victory over Union City at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Paterson Kennedy.
Wood-Ridge got 28 points from Gibney and 23 from fellow junior guard Writenour to improve to 14-0 just four days before the Bergen County Jamboree seeds are determined. It hopes this gut check of a contest will prepare it for the tough challenges ahead.
"It's huge. it’s a big win," Wood-Ridge head coach Ed Rendizo said. "When you’re used to pulling away from teams and now you’re in a nail-biter, you want to see how the kids react. They didn't cave in, they didn’t complain to one another, they stuck together."
Wood-Ridge bolted to a 17-6 lead in the first 4:25 behind its up-tempo pace and the hot shooting of Writenour (eight points in the run, 11 for the quarter)and seemed headed for a just another blowout. But Group 4 Union City (5-10) soon proved it had both the heart to claw back and the athletes to keep pace once drawing even.
It may have been an odd, uncomfortable situation for Wood-Ridge while it was occurring, but it's also one the Blue Devils have secretly been wanting before it was involved in single-elimination play.
"It gets us ready for the Jambo because we haven't had a lot of hard competition," Gibney said. "The past couple games we’ve been saying to each other that we want a hard game. We want to prove ourselves to people because some people think we shouldn’t be a top seed in the Jambo because we’re a Group 1 school, and we want to prove them wrong."
Gibney handled a lot of that proving by erupting for 20 of his 28 points in the second half and by sinking the go-ahead bucket, 67-64, on a 3-pointer from the left corner with 46 seconds remaining. Senior guard Sayvon Williams (15 points, eight rebounds) had forced the game's sixth tie 34 seconds earlier on a 3-pointer off a kickout by Raied Saleh.
O'Beirne (19 points, 11 rebounds) came up with a steal for Wood-Ridge with 34 seconds to play and worked the ball to Writenour, who was fouled. He made one of two for a 68-64 lead with 30 seconds left and Gibney closed out the scoring by hitting two free throws with 16 seconds to play.
On a large scale, a late January, out-of-conference loss probably wouldn't have scarred Wood-Ridge in any way. But with the Jamboree seeds looming (it also plays Lyndhurst Tuesday), the undefeated record could be the difference of a few choice spots. The Blue Devils were seeded 16th last year and fell to No. 17 Elmwood Park in the preliminary round.
"This is very important," Writenour said. " WE want a good seed in the Jambo so we get that first-round bye. "We got tested, but we made our shots. played good defense when we had to and won."
Wood-Ridge did not shoot as efficiently as normal (23 of 67), but was able to trade threes for twos both early in the game with Writenour (four treys and 16 points in the first half) and after the break with Gibney. He buried five 3-pointers in the second half.
Often, it was one sharpshooter feeding the other as Wood-Ridge worked the ball speedily through and around Union City's 2-3 zone.
"Those two have been playing together since second or third grade," Rendizo said. "They're both very good shooters, but they're also very unselfish. That's how this whole group is. They don't care about themselves; they care about each other. They will have each other's back."
Union City challenged that unity by seizing a 56-53 lead with a 13-3 run to start the fourth quarter. Williams launched it with a basket inside and capped in with a jumper in the lane with 5:12 to go. The 6-7 O'Beirne reclaimed the lead for Wood-Ridge, 57-56, by converting a feed by Colon with 4:45 remaining and hitting a pair of free throws 15 seconds later.
Junior forward Johny Rodriguez scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds and freshman guard Luis Solorzano finished with 11 points for Union City.
St. Joseph (Mont.) 69, Passaic 62: St. Joseph made just 11 of 22 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter, but those 11 represented two more than what Passaic had the entire game at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic Sunday afternoon at Paterson Kennedy.
Junior forward Terrence McNair sank seven of his 19 points in the final quarter (5 of 8 from the line) and Austin Hiboki and Pat Mensah each had six points as the Green Knights kept their distance from scrappy senior guard Michael Brown and his Passaic squad from essentially 15 feet away. Brown erupted for 26 points, 16 in the second half and also contributed four assists and three steals for the game. St. Joseph (3-11) snapped a six-game losing streak.
McNair was a dominant presence in the lane in the opening quarter with eight points in the first 6:31 to help the Green Knights forge a 15-8 lead. Junior guard Ryan Rivera came off the bench to knock down eight of his 13 points in the second quarter as the lead was stretched to 32-20.
The Green Knights built a 13-point advantage early in the fourth quarter, but Passaic (2-9) quickly trimmed the deficit to 50-43 with a spurt triggered by a jumper from Rashaan Johnson (15 points, 12 rebounds) and capped with a putback from Matt Cancel. McNair hit two free throws with 6:25 to play to put St. Joseph in front, 52-43, and his club maintained a lead of at least eight points before Darian Giles drained a 3-pointer in the closing seconds for Passaic.
Mensah closed with 16 pints, nine rebounds and six assists and Hiboki scored 10 points and hauled in eight rebounds for St. Joseph. Passaic was 5 of 9 from the line for the game.
Indian Hills 55, Passaic Valley 50: Rob Carridi forced overtime at 47-47 on a 3-pointer with eight seconds remaining and handed Indian Hills the lead for good on a free throw 11 seconds into the extra session at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Paterson Kennedy.
Indian Hills trailed, 17-2, in the first quarter, but edged its way back into the game behind the outstanding play of Ryan Warnet (27 points) and the clutch scoring of Carridi and Austin Zak. Warnet deposited 15 points in the fourth period to stimulate a 22-14 run, though was held scoreless in overtime. Reid Zak was 3 of 4 from the line in OT and Dan Green added two from the stripe.
Jamir Lennon netted 22 points for Passaic Valley, which saw its sizable early lead shrink by five points by the half once Warnet got active.
Mike Kinney covers boys basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKinneyHS