Sekou Harris said that the idea of playing St. Anthony again in the Tournament of Champions final had been burned into Plainfield's collective consciousness since the season's opening tip Dec. 16, and seared even deeper into its thoughts after a regular-season loss last month to the Friars.
"Last year we lost to them to end the season. This year that's what we played for," the senior point guard said. "It was on our mind the whole year, to get back to the T of C championship."
Perhaps the Cardinals' preoccupation with this rematch explains in part their slow starts earlier this week against Asbury Park and Neptune. But here against St. Joseph of Metuchen, with that title game practically close enough to touch, there was not the smallest sign of distraction.
There was only clarity, and purpose, and one very nasty brand of defense against one of the state's more talented offensive cubs.
Senior swing Jahmal Lane poured in 11 of his game-high 22 points in a sizzling second quarter that gave Plainfield a 14-point lead that it rode to a 70-48 win Friday night in the NJSIAA/ShopRite Tournament of Champions semifinals before some 3,600 at the Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway.
Plainfield (30-3), No. 4 in The MSG Varsity Top 15, will battle No. 1 and undefeated St. Anthony (31-0) at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Izod Center in East Rutherford in a rematch of the 2011 final won by the Friars, 61-49.
St. Joseph (29-2), ranked No. 3 in New Jersey, had battled Plainfield practically basket for basket in the first quarter, trailing only 19-17. But Plainfield applied the clamps the following period to generate runouts and almost completely freeze the Falcons' attack as it built a 37-23 lead.
"I think defensively they were very strong, very long, very quick," St. Joseph head coach Dave Turco said. "They contested a lot of shots, they took us out of our rhythm.
"They had a great game plan tonight an d they executed it extremely well," he said. "We didn't knock down shots because of how well they played."
Temple-bound swing Quenton DeCosey scored 16 points and senior forward Danny Brix had 15 for St. Joseph, but their team could not come close to matching Plainfield's balance, which came largely though the stifling defense that was undermining the Falcons' normal scoring flow.
"I think we actually played pretty good defense in the first quarter, but St. Joseph played very good offense, as well," Plainfield head coach Jeff Lubreski said. "Our concern was the previous two games where we a little slow starting, particularly defensively.
"We started better in the first quarter and we really turned it up a notch in the second," he said. "That second quarter we probably played eight minutes of defense as well as we could play."
Plainfield limited St. Joseph to three field goals in that second quarter and held the Falcons scoreless for the last 3:30 of the half. Meanwhile, Lane was on fire, both at the end of fast breaks and with his pull-up jumper.
"I just wanted to come out with a lot of intensity on the offensive end and get them out of this game early," Lane said. "I know that if I can get going, it's hard to beat us."
Harris scored 17 points and also had five assists and four steals and Diijon Allen-Jordan and Justin Sears scored 12 points apiece to raise Plainfield's winning streak to 14 games. The Cardinals' last loss, in fact, was a 43-31 setback to St. Anthony Feb. 7 in Plainfield.
Plainfield had fallen behind by nine points in the first half of that game and was unable to climb from the hole. The Cardinals led Asbury Park by just two points Wednesday in the quarterfinals, but broke away in the second half for a 68-53 win. In the Group 3 final Saturday against Neptune, Plainfield trailed, 26-21, at the half, and rallied for a 58-48 decision.
"Experience helped a lot," Sears said. "There are nine seniors on the team and we've been here before. It's just like another game to us. You don't want your season to end now, so you just play hard. We all know what we have to do on the court to get the victory."
Sears did his part by guarding talented St. Joseph freshman Karl Towns as if he were measuring him for a new suit, and also attacking relentlessly at the other end in an attempt to draw fouls. The 6-10 Towns had three fouls 14 minutes into the game and wound up fouling out with 2:18 to go in the game and without a point.
"We wanted to take away his space," Lubreski said. "If you give him a little he can hit the three ball and that creates all kinds of problems for you. Justin did a great job of taking that away."
Lubreski started the multi-dimensional Lane on DeCosey, who came in averaging 21.4 ppg., and later switched with Ed Anderson and Taylor Plummer, who covered him most of the second half. The 6-5 DeCosey, who drives the lane with both power and creativity, erupted for 10 points in the Falcons' promising first quarter and was held to six the rest of the way.
Was this the best defense DeCosey and his squad confronted this season?
"Tonight they were," Turco said. "They were good on the ball, they were good off the ball, they rebounded, they blocked shots. Long, quick, athletic, no doubt the best defensive effort we'd seen."
Plainfield had forged a 44-27 lead midway in the third quarter before Brix got hot with two 3-pointers and a bucket inside to spur a 10-3 run that brought St. Joseph to within 47-37. The Falcons had the ball and missed a good shot and then Lane buried a 3-pointer in transition for a 50-37 lead with 1:27 to go.
"I thought that was a big momentum changer," Turco said. "I thought we were on the verge of making a comeback right there. But nothing against Plainfield. They definitely outplayed us, they outworked us, the out-executed us."
Mike Kinney covers boys basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKinneyHS