Central Jersey Group 4 Quarterfinal Between East Brunswick and South Brunswick a Classic
SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ—As I drove through the long and winding roads of Hunterdon County after the first game of the GMC Hoops playoff doubleheader between Sayreville and Hunterdon Central on March 3rd, I was hoping that the nightcap between East Brunswick and South Brunswick would go to overtime. I selfishly wanted this to happen because I knew that I was going to be late for the contest since the first game, which started at 4:00 PM, ended around 5:30 PM while this would be epic clash between the Bears and Vikings was starting up at 6:00 PM.
The Gods answered though. Not only with the overtime, but with a buzzer beating ending that brought the agony, ecstasy, heartbreak, and jubilation that comes with a dramatic playoff game’s conclusion. The 2016 Central Jersey Group 4 Quarterfinal between 6th seeded East Brunswick, and 3rd seeded South Brunswick was the fourth meeting of the season between these two schools. The fourth time was the charm as this game surpassed the drama of the previous three games played, and earned the title of GMC Hoops Game of the Year. Both of these teams, which compete in the GMC Red, played each other twice during the regular season with each team winning on their home court.
On January 26th, the Tuesday after the epic Blizzard of 2016, which some schools in Middlesex County didn’t recover from until the Wednesday of the following week, these two schools got together for the first time this season. It would be a game that was a harbinger of things to come between these two schools this season. The game was a nip and tuck affair that East Brunswick appeared to take control of late in the fourth quarter. With 1:26 remaining, the Bears held a 54-45 lead thanks to the exploits of big man, Addis Ralph, and guard Matt Ross. EB, which had slipped in the polls thanks to a tough home loss to Woodbridge on January 9th (49-47), seemed poised to get the win it needed to climb back towards the top again.
It didn’t happen. Instead, the South Brunswick Vikings roared back with an amazing 12-2 tear that included two huge threes from junior guard, Ryan Moran. The final trey, which came with about 5 seconds left lifted the Vikes to a dramatic 57-56 come from behind victory that solidified their place at second in the GMC Hoops Top Ten behind St. Joseph’s. South Brunswick would never fall from that perch for the rest of the season. In the four games played this season between EB and SBHS, the average margin of victory was just a little more than five points per game. The largest margin occurred in the second meeting between these two schools in the newly renovated EBHS Gym on February 11th, the night before the 2016 GMCT Seeding meeting would take place.
East Brunswick would win the game by 13, but there was plenty of drama in this contest. The Bears won the game because the pace and style suited them better than the Vikings. Both teams combined to score 149 points. The game was just as back and forth as the other three meetings these teams played, but with much more scoring. South Brunswick had jumped out to an 11-6 lead, and seemed to be able to repel any advance by EB while increasing its lead to ten at 29-19 early in the second quarter. However, led by Ross, who scored a game high 32 points in the contest, the Bears put together a tremendous 40-7 outburst over about a 10 minute stretch to take a commanding 59-36 lead late in the third. South Brunswick did its best to climb back into the contest, but couldn’t overcome the large deficit as EB won, 81-68. The last two times these teams met this season would be on South Brunswick’s home court in a playoff atmosphere.
The first of these two games, which was the third meeting of the season between the Bears and Vikings, was in the 2016 GMCT Semifinals. Despite the early start at 5:30 PM, both schools brought their student sections. South Brunswick and East Brunswick made key adjustments for this third game, and that was to stop the opposing team’s leading scorer. In the first two games, EB’s Matt Ross averaged 31.5 points per game while SB’s Eric Savage averaged 24 points per game. The Vikings did a slightly better job at stopping Ross by limiting him to just 7 points. Savage still managed to score in double figures, but it was junior teammate, Mike Ugarte, who came up big by scoring 17 points to lead the Vikes to another come from behind victory. Trailing 45-41 with 2:48 remaining after a score by EB’s Ralph, South Brunswick closed out the game in dramatic fashion with a 9-0 spurt to post the 50-45 victory, and clinch its first GMCT finals berth since 1993.
Following the GMCT Semifinals, I took a look at the bracket for the Central Jersey Group 4 playoffs, and made a note on twitter that these two teams could meet again, and they did. Not only did these three games set the stage for this classic contest, but last year’s clashes between the two schools did too. Both games were won by South Brunswick, and by single digits including the the second match-up at East Brunswick that the Vikings won in triple overtime on a last second shot by Ugarte. Perhaps that game was the best of the series, but the stakes of this year’s state tourney contest between these two teams was much higher, and added to the drama. The finality of the contest with several players playing their last high school basketball game added to the drama and emotion. It would be the best game GMC Hoops has seen since the epic double overtime thriller between St. Joseph’s and East Brunswick in the 2013 GMCT Championship.
This game shared a common theme to three of the other games in this four game series between the Bears and Vikings this season. East Brunswick’s big three of Ross (21 points), Ralph (19 points), and Mike Vick (17 points) scored the bulk (57) of the 61 points for the Bears. EB would again have the lead in the second half, and actually for much of the last two periods. The Bears had a 29-20 halftime lead after a last second score by Vick. South Brunswick roared back to pull within one after scoring the first 8 points of the third including a long three point bomb by Danesh Thirukmaran. EB managed to hang on to the lead, and thanks to a Ralph three extended it back to eight at 39-31 towards the end of the third before SBHS rallied back by scoring the last 7 points of the frame including a three by Ugarte to pull within one heading into the fourth. South Brunswick would eventually take the lead as Ugarte sank another trey for a 46-45 with 3:19 to go in regulation.
The game, which had more than its share of clutch shots, proceeded to go back and forth for the rest of regulation and overtime. Each team seemed to have an answer for the other, whether it was shot for shot, or run for run. East Brunswick appeared to seize the upper hand when it took a 52-48 lead with 1:47 to play when Savage was fouled and went to the line. He sank both free throws, and then on the second missed free throw, there was a bit of controversy when a rare foul was called for some contact underneath EB’s basket. Savage went to the line again, and made another pair of charity shots to tie the game at 52-52. The Bears would retake the lead at 54-52 before Savage, who scored 19 of his 24 points in the second half of the first meeting, answered by dribbling to his left into the middle of the key, and scored on a layin as he was fouled with under a minute to play.
Savage missed the bonus free throw, and EB made one of two from the line for a 55-54 lead. The Bears eventually got his hands on the ball again with 32.2 seconds remaining and still ahead by one. East Brunswick would draw a foul, and make one of two from the line for a 56-54 lead. South Brunswick would answer with Savage again as senior point guard, Jaier Garrett found him open in the middle of the paint for another layup that tied the score at 56-56 with 15 seconds to play. EB had a chance to score, but was unable to, and lost possession with 1.6 seconds to play in regulation. It set the stage for a nearly unbelievable shot attempt before the buzzer to end regulation as SB’s Chris James inbounded to Savage at midcourt along the sideline opposite the scorer’s table, and the senior let fly a long shot that hit the rim as time expired. With the score still tied at 56-56, the extra session brought even more of the dramatic.
Thirukmaran opened the overtime scoring with another long three from the right wing for a 59-56 lead. East Brunswick would battle back though. After SBHS added a free throw for a 60-56 lead, Vick scored off a drive from the left side for a 60-58 Vikings edge. Then, after another foul shot put SB up by three again, EB tied it up at 61-61 on a three from Ralph. The stage was now set for the game winning heroics of Savage. Taking a pass from Garrett at the top of the key with about five seconds to play, Savage dribble to his right to inside the foul line, where he pulled up for a jumper that banked in as time expired for the 63-61 victory. South Brunswick fans poured on to the court to celebrate the victory along with the Vikings. Meanwhile, EB players, parents, and coaches were inconsolable.
You don’t have to be a great player to understand what it’s like when the final buzzer sounds in your last high school basketball game. However, the feeling is much different when it ends under these circumstances. East Brunswick, which concluded its season at 18-9, battled its way back from an up and down middle of the season by winning 9 of its last 12 games including wins over quality programs such as SB, Spotswood, and Colonia. The Bears have a proud basketball program with a rich tradition, which will continue for years to come.
South Brunswick would ultimately lose to Colts Neck in the CJ Group 4 semifinals, and finished 22-5 overall with three of those losses coming to top ranked St. Joseph’s. It was the best season, SBHS had since winning CJ Group 4, and reaching the state final in 2007. It was sad to see the Vikings season end as well, but both the Vikes and Bears can hold their heads high with the fact that they combined for four of the most exciting games that two teams ever played against each other in one season in the near 16 years that GMC Hoops has been covering boys basketball in Middlesex County.