Jamir Watkins was named Most Valuable Player of the MCT against Nottingham Feb. 28 in Trenton. Rich Hundley photo
Jamir Watkins was named Most Valuable Player of the MCT against Nottingham Feb. 28 in Trenton. Rich Hundley photo
Jamir Watkins had his foot on the gas pedal at a steady pace for most of the game, but when Nottingham went up 48-47 late in the fourth quarter, the Trenton Catholic Academy senior knew it was time to floor it.

“We’re his sidekicks,” teammate Naji Wright said. “He’s got the keys to the car, we just ride in the passenger’s seat.”

Once the Northstars took their one-point lead, Watkins converted a three-point play and outscored 3rd-seeded Nottingham 9-1 by himself over the next two minutes to propel 4th-seeded TCA to a 59-51 victory in the Mercer County Tournament boys basketball championship game Feb. 28 at Trenton’s Cure Insurance Arena.

Photo Gallery: TCA boys win second straight Mercer County Tournament

It was the second straight title for the Hamilton-based Iron Mikes (14-11) and avenged a 60-59 loss to Nottingham in the 2018 final. It also marked the second straight year TCA’s boys and girls teams won the county crown in the same year, and a record fourth time overall.

Watkins, who is ticketed for Virginia Commonwealth next year, finished with 30 points and 13 rebounds and set a tournament record with 134 points (33.5 average) in four MCT games.

“That’s my brother,” Wright said. “He always does his thing on the court. When he roars then we all roar.”

Said coach Eric Elliott, “I told him with three minutes left, playmakers are gonna make plays, and that’s what he did. He comes in, he can do it all. He can handle, he can shoot, he rebounds. He’s athletic.”

And he punctuated his explosion with two massive jams that brought the TCA rooting section to its feet. It was no surprise Watkins was holding the Most Valuable Player trophy when the game ended.

“It feels good,” Watkins said of the award. “I knew I had everybody behind me, so I just had to show them what I could really do and put on a show. I started off slow, so I had to start getting going for my team.”

Watkins “slow” start included 12 first-half points and he had 20 through three quarters. But Nottingham is as dogged an opponent as there is in Mercer County and had the best overall regular-season record among Colonial Valley Conference teams. The Northstars always find a way to hang in games and had an 11-game winning streak snapped by the Mikes (14-11).

Thus, before Watkins’ eruption, Nottingham (21-6) seemed poised to spring what would have been considered an upset despite what the seedings said.

“Hats off to Nottingham, they played a great game,” Elliott said. “[Coach Chris] Raba’s one of the best in the area, best in the state. They played us tough, they made big plays, guarded us pretty well and got us out of what we wanted to do.”

Despite blowout wins in its first three MCT games, Trenton Catholic was prepared for the frenzied final minutes.

“I told the guys when we were down one, we’d been here before, we’d played in all types of games,” Elliott said. “I told them, ‘Just go out there, be yourself, make plays.’”

TCA has been in the finals seven straight years, meaning they have played 14 games at Cure Insurance.

And yet, because of their 10-11 record at seeding time, they were relegated to a fourth seed despite a schedule that included six teams ranked in the state’s top 20. The Mikes endured some growing pains during a seven-game losing streak in January and early February, making them ready for tournament time.

“We went through a lot of adversity this year, a lot of ups and downs,” Elliott said. “We played a really tough schedule, our goal was to prepare for moments like this.”

As for being a fourth seed despite its strong history in the tournament, TCA took it in stride.

“It didn’t matter who we were playing; we wanted to get to this game and win this game,” Elliott said. “We definitely used it as motivation.”

As for Watkins, he just figured a game is a game no matter what the seed.

“We weren’t really worried about the seedings,” he said. “We knew we were gonna come out and play hard.”

That hard play included 10 points apiece from juniors Donavin Crawford and Freddie Young, who scored his 1,000th career point in a semifinal win over Hightstown. Watkins felt the Mikes began playing more as a team in the second half, as he and Wright both enjoyed their third county title.

“It’s just lovely to have another championship before we go off the college,” Wright said. “ We had some tough times during the season … but even when we went on a losing streak, we stayed happy in practice, and we got our championship back.”