Evan Romano, St. Rose sophomore, scoots past his Roselle Catholic opponent. Hal Brown photo
Evan Romano, St. Rose sophomore, scoots past his Roselle Catholic opponent. Hal Brown photo

Losing is never good, but it’s tolerable when a team can glean some good things from it. The St. Rose of Belmar boys basketball team is a prime example.

Ranked No. 11 in the state, the Purple Roses went up against No. 1 ranked Roselle Catholic in the NJSIAA Non-Public B championship game. After losing to the Rams by 21 while playing undermanned in the regular season, St. Rose held a one-point lead entering the fourth quarter before eventually falling, 68-59, at Rutgers’ Jersey Mike’s Arena in New Brunswick March 3.

PHOTO GALLERY: St. Rose Boys Basketball Finals

The good news is that the Purple Roses were able to compete with a national powerhouse. The better news is that every player who got minutes in the game will be back next year.

“And that means we’re gonna be one year more experienced – which matters,” second-year coach Brian Lynch said. “We’re gonna be a little older and a little more developed. Hopefully tonight gave us a chance to get out there for people to see what we have and be recognized as one of better teams in the state.”

Lynch was not surprised at the way his team battled. He noted in the first game with Roselle Catholic the Roses were without injured freshman forward Jayden Hodge and had several other players fighting illness.

“I was disappointed we couldn’t have our full squad to give ourselves a real chance in that game,” he said. “I thought tonight we were playing good basketball before this, we were healthy, and I thought we did have a chance to at least give them a real fight. And we did.

“We came out here to win it. We were up early in the fourth quarter and just maybe don’t have the experience to close it. They’re so explosive, they go on runs that are tough to stop. It’s usually mostly done by their defense. The guys did a great job, I’m proud of them.”

Junior forward Matthew Hodge, who transferred from Belgium with younger brother Jayden last summer, feels the Roses’ time on the big stage will pay dividends next year.

“It’s a great experience for everybody,” said Hodge, who had 19 points, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals. “For us it’s a great motivation. Being able to play here at Rutgers against a team like this with such good players was unbelievable and I think that’s gonna help us for next year for sure.”

Sophomore Bryan Ebeling, a transfer from Italy, noted it was the first time he got to play in such a setting.

“This was an amazing experience,” Ebeling said. “I’ve never been in a building like this. I used to play in small gyms every day. And the crowd here was crazy. It feels like it’s not real.”

It was very real. And the best part for St. Rose is, all its key players have another shot at it.

“It’s gonna be a really good future for us,” Ebeling said. “We have a really good chance to win. We want that for real.”

It looked like they might do it for real against the state’s top team. Trailing 35-25 early in the third quarter, Peter Mauro and Ebeling scored every point in a 12-0 run to give the Roses a two-point lead. Gio Panzini’s bucket to end the quarter put St. Rose up 44-43 and optimism was running high.

But the Rams opened the final quarter with a 9-1 run and the Roses could get no closer than four the rest of the way.

“We kept our composure, we kept playing in the third quarter, everything went our way,” Matthew Hodge said. “And that was our mindset going into the fourth quarter too. But we know who we were playing against. They came on strong in that fourth quarter and that kind of hurt us.”

Ebeling felt that St. Rose had to overcome a few nerves before it got going.

“At the beginning we were a little excited, the gym was so big,” he said. “In the locker room at halftime coach tried to motivate us and light a fire for that third quarter to try to get back and win.”

Mauro was big in the comeback and finished with 12 points, while Panzini had eight points and four steals, Evan Romano had nine points and Jayden Hodge had four rebounds, two assists and five steals.

“(Having Jayden) makes us feel better because we can play as a whole,” Matthew Hodge said of his brother. “Even though he’s struggling a little it doesn’t matter, he’ll bring the intensity every game and he’ll be creative on offense every time.”

The bottom line is, while it may have been a loss, it planted the seeds for a potentially better 2023-24 season after the Roses finished 24-5 this year.  

“One hundred percent this will keep us motivated,” Hodge said. “This will keep us hungry to do the same thing next year, or maybe even better.”

Entering this season, St. Rose had an entirely new team playing the regular rotation. Lynch warned that the Roses had to develop cohesion in order to do great things, and they managed just that.  

“We’re a new team, everybody’s new,” Ebeling said. “I come from Italy; we have two guys from Belgium. But we had great chemistry and we’re gonna be a great team.”

Hodge added that, “It was hard at the beginning, and it was a lot of figuring out things at the start. But the most important thing is what we want to be known for as a culture at St. Rose — and that’s being a family and I think that we’ve accomplished that now with our team.”

It takes a group of special personalities to develop a family atmosphere. It takes dedication, loyalty, sacrifice and looking out for each other. Lynch feels his guys displayed all of that.

“I’m really lucky, this team is tremendous,” the coach said. “We have great ambassadors for the school. We don’t have one bad apple. Every kid is an absolute joy and is good to work with. I’m very lucky.”