A Look at the 2019 GMCT Boys Semifinals

New Brunswick Trying to Become First 9th Seed to Reach GMCT Boys Final

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—On Thursday night, GMC Hoops will be traveling down to New Brunswick High School to take in the two semifinal games in the 2019 Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament. Both games have their share of intrigue, and there’s a chance that once the dust settles tonight we could have our first all public school final in the GMCT since Metuchen faced Colonia in the 2006 GMCT Championship.

Up and until the late 1990s, the Greater Middlesex Conference Boys Tournaments were dominated by all public school finals. However, with the re-emergence of St. Peter’s in the late 1980s to mid 1990s, and St. Joseph’s getting back on the boys basketball map in the late 1990s, the idea of an all public final in the GMC began to diminish. Then in the early 2000s, Cardinal McCarrick became a contender and won two titles in 2003 and 2008. Although McCarrick is now closed, the non-publics, specifically St. Joseph’s have had a stranglehold on the tourney final with the Falcons making 11 straight appearances, and looking to make it a 12th on Thursday night.

A year ago, Colonia made history by becoming the first 7th seed to ever reach a GMCT Boys final. Although, the Patriots fell short, they demonstrated tremendous heart by rallying from a 35-16 deficit midway through the third to take a one point lead over St. Joseph’s with a minute remaining before K-Shawn Schulters capped off an GMCT MVP performance with a buzzer beater shot for the ages to give St. Joe’s its third straight title and 10th over the past 11 years. Colonia is back this year as the 2nd seed, and has a rematch of last year’s GMCT Championship in the semis against 3rd seeded St. Joseph’s starting at 6:00 PM Thursday night at NBHS.

Meanwhile, 9th seeded New Brunswick is trying to surpass what Colonia did a year ago by being the first 9th seeded team ever to reach the GMCT Championship Game. The Zebras have not been in a GMCT final since the inaugural one in 1986 when they lost to Carteret behind the monstrous 40 point performance by the late Keith Hughes (Syracuse and Rutgers). New Brunswick has only been in four MCT/GMCT finals: 1970, 1971, 1985, and 1986. Besides Colonia last year and New Brunswick this year, only three lower seeded teams have ever reached the GMCT Final Four:

1988—12th seeded Cedar Ridge (led by 1,500 plus point scorer Tim Klag, and lost to top seeded St. Peter’s).

1999—14th seeded Perth Amboy (led by Ralph Lora, who eventually scored a 1,000 points at Kean University, lost to 2nd seeded Colonia in the semis).

2013—11th seeded Old Bridge (Jim Macomber’s first year at the helm produced a magical ride for the Knights led by the first two 1,000 point scorers at the school, Sultan Aminu (East Stroudsburg and Ramapo) and Tyler Drews (Caldwell and Widener), lost to 2nd seeded and eventual champion, St. Joseph’s).

Not to be left out at all, 5th seeded Piscataway, one of the more prominent public school programs in the Greater Middlesex Conference, is making its first GMCT Final Four appearance since 2011 after getting knocked out in the quarterfinals in each of the past two seasons (lost to top seeded Joes in 2017 GMCT Quarterfinals and then lost to 7th seeded Colonia in the 2018 GMCT Quarterfinals). Darius Griffin Sr., who took over the program at the start of the 2016-17 season, has the Chiefs back on the map in Middlesex County.

Now let’s take a closer look at both of the 2019 GMCT Boys Semifinal Games:

GMCT Boys Semifinal Game #1—#3 St. Joseph’s (16-8) vs. #2 Colonia (20-3) at New Brunswick HS, 6:00 PM

Once again, this is a rematch of the 2018 GMCT Championship that saw a tremendous comeback by Colonia be wiped away from one of the most memorable shots ever taken in the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament by K-Shawn Schulters. While St. Joseph’s has mostly everyone back from a year ago, Colonia took some hits to graduation.

Nevertheless, the 2nd seeded Patriots, led by senior forward, Chad Baker, who became a force during Colonia’s conference and state tourney runs a year ago, and teammate, Luke Valeriano, who played JV at St. Joseph’s as a freshman in 2015-16, have been dominant in the GMC White Division, and have yet to lose a game in conference all season en route to a 20-3 overall mark.

On the other hand, St. Joseph’s had its share of struggles during the regular season. With the emergence of top seeded Old Bridge along with Piscataway, Monroe, South Brunswick, and J.P. Stevens, the Falcons didn’t look much like a Championship caliber team at mid-season with a 5-6 record. However, while everyone felt the Falcons were dead and buried, they’ve turned things around with 11 wins in their last 13 games including victories over St. Peter’s Prep, Old Bridge, and then Carteret in the GMCT Quarterfinals.

Keys to this game will be how well Schulters and Tyree Ford play for the Falcons. Both played better against Carteret. Jack Hogarty has become another important piece to this year’s St. Joseph’s puzzle with his steady play off the bench. Howard McBurnie will have to stay out of foul trouble while Luke Fresco and Matt Cruz need to come up with solid games again from the perimeter.

Meanwhile, the keys for Colonia will be the play of not only big man, Chad Baker, and speedy guard, Luke Valeriano, but also the efforts of man in the middle, Chris Sica, who often gets overlooked, but does a solid job of not only clogging up the middle and providing a football toughness to this Patriots squad, but does a fine job of staying within the offense, picking up loose balls and offensive rebounds, and passing to teammates for scores.  Tommy Mitch and Timmy Rodriguez have also played well for the Pats in games against Westfield in the Investors Games on February 2nd and Monroe in the GMCT Quarterfinals on Sunday.

GMC Hoops Pick:  St. Joseph’s 58—Colonia 56

GMCT Semifinal Game #2–#9 New Brunswick (16-6) vs. #5 Piscataway (15-9) at New Brunswick HS, 8:00 PM

Despite the close proximity of these two schools, it has actually been quite rare for the Piscataway Chiefs and New Brunswick Zebras to get together for a boys basketball game over the years.  The last time that I can recall the Zebras playing the Chiefs in a regular season or conference tournament game was in January 2006.  Back then, NBHS head coach, Tony DiGiovanni was in his second and final year in The Hub City, and Guy Jensen, who is now coaching at Metuchen, was in his 2nd season in P-Way.

The 2005-06 season was one to forget in Piscataway with the Chiefs going 4-20, but top returner, Rodney Freeney became the school’s all time leading scorer by surpassing the mark made by the legendary John Celestand, who helped guide P-Way to its only state championship in 1994.  New Brunswick was in the midst of its second straight 15-10 season and GMCT Quarterfinals berth, where they would eventually lose to the 2006 GMCT Champion, Colonia.

Both programs have been undergoing a renaissance of sorts in boys basketball.  Piscataway is further along in its resurgence than New Brunswick under 3rd year head coach, Darius Griffin, Sr., a former standout at Rutgers, who played with the likes of Roy Hinson (76ers, Cavailers, and Nets), and Rick Brunson, who now coaches the women’s basketball program at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft after serving as an assistant there in the men’s program for many years.  The Chiefs are making their first appearance in the GMCT Semifinals since defeating Bishop Ahr in the Final Four at South Brunswick in 2011.

While further along with its rebirth in boys basketball, Piscataway has also not experienced the futility that New Brunswick has gone through.  Since last reaching the GMCT and Central Jersey Group 3 Quarterfinals in 2012, the Zebras went through a drought that would be about equivalent to GMC boys basketball version of The Dust Bowl with an 8-81 overall record and a 5-51 record in conference prior to third year head coach, and former Sayreville standout, Samir Sanu took over the program for the 2016-17 season.  Things didn’t get immediately better overnight either with two more below .500 seasons before this year.

New Brunswick has the chance to become the first 9th seeded team, and lowest seeded team ever to reach a Greater Middlesex Conference Boys Basketball Tournament Championship.  The mark for lowest seed actually was set a year ago when Colonia reached the final as a 7th seed.  As mentioned earlier, New Brunswick has never won an MCT or GMCT title making appearances in the MCT back in 1970, 1971, and 1985 while having its only GMCT appearance in 1986.  Piscataway, which joined the GMC for the 1998-89 season, has won GMCT titles in 1991, 1994, and 1995 under Paul Schoeb, and in 2007 and 2009 under Jensen.  The Chiefs also won back to back MCT titles in 1976 and 1977 under Windy McGriff.

Keys for New Brunswick in this game will of course be the play of junior guard, and 1,000 point scorer Ahyan Brown Miller as well as big man, Tahjay Moore. Brown-Miller has the ability to not only hit the three, but most importantly relentlessly attack the basket and penetrate, which creates opportunities for other players such as Zy’dir Harmon, Josiah Brown, and Alquan Brown-Taylor as well as Tajee Welcome and Wildes Pierre.  Piscataway will counter with the likes of Tyree Barba-Bey and Antonio Chandler, who both have big play capability whether on the drive or from the perimeter.  

Watch P-Way football standout, Kristan Hernandez, who played a very important role off the bench in helping the Chiefs defeat fourth seeded, and NJ.com’s top team in Middlesex County, Bishop Ahr in the quarterfinals.  Mark Davis and Andre Emden are athletic and can make plays at both ends with Emden showing a good stroke from the perimeter as well.

GMC Hoops Pick:  Piscataway 56—New Brunswick 55