St. John Vianney’s Varsity Girls' Basketball team won its 15th Shore Conference Tournament Feb. 27, defeating Manasquan 62-46; senior Madison St. Rose was named MVP of the game. Courtesy photo
St. John Vianney’s Varsity Girls' Basketball team won its 15th Shore Conference Tournament Feb. 27, defeating Manasquan 62-46; senior Madison St. Rose was named MVP of the game. Courtesy photo

When it came to this year’s county and conference basketball tournaments, tradition was upheld in the Mercer County boys’ tourney and the Shore Conference girls’ event.

The first-seeded Trenton Catholic Preparatory Academy boys of Hamilton won their third straight MCT championship and a record eighth overall by defeating sixth-seeded Trenton Central High, 72-57, Feb. 24 at Trenton’s Cure Insurance Arena.

Three days later, the top-seeded St. John Vianney girls of Holmdel won their record 15th SCT title with a 62-46 triumph over fourth-seeded Manasquan Feb. 27 at Toms River’s RWJ Barnabas Health Arena. While it was officially two straight SCT titles for the Lancers, it was actually their third straight championship when it came to Shore Conference competition, counting last year’s COVID-induced “pod” tournament amongst the conference’s top teams.  

Making the MCT girls finals was third-seeded Notre Dame of Lawrenceville, which dropped a 51-46 decision to top-seeded Ewing at the Cure Insurance Arena Feb. 24.

To view a Photo Gallery of the TCPA boys' MCT game, click HERE, and for the NDHS girls' MCT game, click HERE.

The Iron Mikes (19-4 record) had trouble shaking Trenton in the first half and only led 33-27 midway through the second quarter before two late baskets pushed the margin to 10 at halftime. TCPA exploded in the third quarter, opening with a 23-2 run to blow it open at 60-29.

“It was our defense, especially,” said tournament Most Valuable Player Michael “Deuce” Jones, who scored 20 points. “Coming off the bench before the quarter started, we said, ‘They don’t score no more,’ and we had to get stops. It was hard to get it going, but once [coach Mark Bass] yelled at us we just fixed it up and we won.”

Senior forward Jameel Morris, who had a game-high 26 points and eight rebounds, agreed with his sophomore teammate.

“We just needed to lock in on defense,” Morris said. “That’s our main thing, every game. Every big game that we play, the main thing we focus on is to lock in on our defense.”

Morris also had a big night on offense, particularly in the decisive third quarter when he scored 11 points. Included in that flurry was the 1,000th of his career, which came on a short jumper to make the score 62-31.

“Had to get that One-K,” Jones said with a smile.

“They were telling me,” Morris said, “that ‘You need four more points.’ I’m like ‘Aww man, four more already. Geesh I’m gonna hit that right now!’ My main goal was to make this jump shot, and that’s what I did.”

It couldn’t have come at a nicer time, unless it was a state final. The scene was perfect, with a large crowd in a big arena during a championship game.

“I love this stage, I’m not gonna lie,” Morris said. “I love the atmosphere, I love the fans, I love everything about this place. It was a great experience here.”

Of course, the 1,000th wouldn’t have meant as much had the Iron Mikes not won the championship.

“We definitely didn’t want to be the team not to win it,” Jones said of TCPA’s streak of titles.

“This was very important to me,” Morris said. “This is my senior year, I know this is gonna be the last time I’ll probably ever be in this gym, so I just really wanted to put on a show for the crowd, get everybody keyed up.”

Morris picked the right time to step up his effort, as his twin brother Jamaal missed the game due to injury.

“That definitely changed a lot of things,” Jones said. “He’s usually the first person off the bench and gives us a lot of energy, so other bench players had to step up and get us going.”

Other contributors to the victory were Camryn Stewart-Bethea, Cale Maxey, Oliver Bush, Devyn Wright and Terrence Keese.

“If (Jamaal) was here, it would have definitely been a 30-point blowout,” Jameel said. “But I give respect to the other team. They fought, they were coached well, they played hard. All respect to them.”

TCPA now turns its attention to the NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public B tournament. The top-seeded Mikes open on March 4 with a home game against 8th-seeded Gloucester Catholic.

Morris feels his brother’s return will make a difference, saying “with another star player we should blow by any team we play until we get to where we need to.”

Jones feels the same way.

“That’s really our main goal,” he said, “to win states.”

Considering the SJV girls are ranked No. 1 in New Jersey, that is pretty much the Lancers’ main goal as well, but they knew the first order of business was to be the Shore Conference’s top team.  

“I think it was just good for the girls to go out with the Shore Conference title and have the legitimate chance to defend it after having the pod last year,” coach Dawn Karpell said. “It’s a big deal because the Shore Conference has so much talent.”

Manasquan (26-4) was proof of that, as it provided SJV (26-1) with one of its sternest tests of the season. The Warriors made it their mission to try and stop Madison St. Rose, one of the state’s top players, and they managed that in the first half.

But the Lancers have secondary players who would be stars elsewhere, so with St. Rose’s scoring nullified for one half, others took over.

“Our bench played pretty well,” Karpell said. “Bre Delaney went in and got a bucket early, Julia Karpell knocked down a three when we were down six in the second quarter. The bench kids came in and gave us a little bump, Ashley Sofilkanich played really well off the bench as well.”

Other starters also chipped in. Guard Zoey Brooks, another one of the state’s premiere players, hit a few baskets at the end of the half, and Janie Bachmann scored some key baskets off offensive rebounds, enabling SJV to take a 25-23 lead at intermission.

“It wasn’t like Madison was playing poorly,” Karpell said. “They were just focused 100 percent on locking her down, so it kind of opened other people up. By the third quarter we were able to take Manasquan’s best shot and come out and turn the defensive intensity up. We were able to get it into more of our style of game.”

The Lancers never blew it open with one of those famous whirlwind runs that knock a team out within minutes; but they grinded away and gradually put more space between themselves and Manasquan.

SJV was not only battling the Warriors, but the rest of the arena.  

“The kids hadn’t played in that kind of environment for a couple years, where the whole gym was rooting against them,” Karpell said. “There were a couple things going wrong and they just needed to gain their composure. So, it was fun and good for them to experience that.”

Indeed, the Lancers are like the New York Yankees, Duke basketball and University of Alabama football teams all rolled into one, as the masses root for them to be knocked off.

“We don’t really worry about what other people think,” Karpell said. “The kids go out there and we have our goal of playing for each other and sticking to the game plan. We don’t really want to try to get carried away by what the outside noise is kind of about. It was good for the kids to be challenged for sure.”

St. Rose finished with 21 points, five rebounds, two blocked shots and two steals, while Brooks collected 20 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two steals.

Even after being limited in the first half, St. Rose never got dismayed or frustrated. It’s all part of her mindset.

“She’s kind of got that stone cold temperament,” Karpell said. “The demeanor and temperament just never changes. She internalizes but doesn’t ever get too high and too low. She’s super competitive, but it’s not an outwardly or emotional competitiveness. It’s just an inward driven type of competitiveness.”

It helps that the team’s two biggest stars don’t act like they are stars.  

“Madison trusts her teammates,” Karpell said. “We’re all on the same page. She makes the right basketball play and picks the moments when she needs to kind of step it up. Zoey does a really good job of involving teammates as well. That’s why I think our team is incredibly successful – our team plays the right way.”

SJV will carry the momentum of their SCT run into the NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public A tournament. It begins states on Mar. 4 as the top seed with a home game against eighth-seeded Immaculata.

Immaculata advanced by eliminating Notre Dame with a 54-42 decision in the first round.

The Irish were coming off their loss to Ewing in the MCT finals. Notre Dame gave the top-seeded Blue Devils – who are ranked No. 13 in the state – all they could handle.

After falling behind 12-2 at the end of the first quarter, ND started to claw its way back in it. The Irish could never tie it, however, as Ewing held on for the victory.

Grace Jakim led the Irish with 10 points, nine rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots. Nicole Villalta-Barrantes was held to four points by strong Ewing defense; but was Notre Dame’s most consistent player and its top scorer throughout the season.