As a team blessed with loads of talent and a legitimate shot at making a deep Tournament of Champions run, Teaneck is trying to take advantage of every opportunity to prove it belongs on the same court with the best in New Jersey.
Part of such a journey is facing the typically stronger, bigger and more physical parochial programs – and the No. 5 Highwaymen are finding out they may be constructing something special.
Teaneck toppled its third Non-Public opponent in five games on Wednesday evening, when it cruised by No. 8 St. Peter’s Prep, 60-45, in the Playaz Basketball Club Jingle Bells Jubilee Tournament semifinals.
Chris Jones led the way with 17 points and speedy point guard Shakir Lindsey added 15 points and five assists for the Highwaymen, who remained undefeated at 5-0 and punched a ticket to face Hackensack in the event’s championship on Friday at 7:15 p.m.
Hackensack, which suffered an 82-61 setback to its Bergen County rival last week, escaped with a 78-73 overtime triumph against Newark Tech in the other semifinal.
Austin White paced St. Peter’s with 20 points, while Monmouth recruit and St. Patrick transfer Tyrone O’Garro pulled down 19 rebounds and dished out six assists.
Teaneck prides itself on riding the talents of the Core Four -- Jones, Lindsey, junior center Neville Fincher 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, as Hernandez suffered a deep cut on his right hand and did not play. He is doubtful for Friday and questionable for Sunday’s showdown against powerhouse St. Patrick.
“It happens,” Teaneck coach Jerome 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.”
As for the final round of the holiday tournament, Smart is expecting another exciting chapter in a great rivalry to unravel.
“(Hackensack) is not going to have any sympathy for us,” Smart said, “and we’re not going to have any sympathy for them either.”
After that contest, though, Teaneck is slated to face another parochial juggernaut in St. Patrick, which finished No. 2 in the nation last season after being ousted by St. Anthony in the North Non-Public B championship.
Smart’s crew has recorded wins over No. 7 St. Joseph (Metuchen), St. Joseph Regional, and now St. Peter’s.
“It’s always important to get a good win against teams like that,” said Jones, who helped Teaneck jump out to a 24-14 halftime lead and construct a lead as high as 21 points by the end of the third quarter. “With St. Pat’s, I definitely think it’ll be interesting with all the physicality.”
Though the Celtics, ranked No. 11 in MSG Varsity’s power rankings, lost nearly its entire roster in the wake of National Coach of the Year Kevin Boyle leaving his post to join Montverde Academy (Fla.), they are still a force. Guard Jared Nickens, fellow junior swingman Deandre Bembry and a bevy of athletic scorers will keep St. Patrick afloat and return as playoff contenders.
“I’ve seen them play, but I don’t know how much that’s going to help,” Smart said. “I do know that everything they do starts with defense.”
In the big picture, another game against a Non-Public power will only strengthen Teaneck’s confidence. Aiming to avenge last season’s Group 3 semifinal loss to Plainfield, such tests will prove to be important as the season goes on.
“You’re not always fortunate to have the talent to compete with the parochial schools,” Smart said. “But we do. And when you do, it’s a good time. You try to take advantage of it.”
Contact Brian Fitzsimmons at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @FitzWriter