School’s First Ever Conference/County Championship Highlighted Remarkable 27-1 Season in 2003-04
Today begins play in the 2019 State Tournaments around the Garden State. However, 15 years ago, things were different. State Tourneys pretty much didn’t start until March. Conference tournaments were just finishing up. So, Tuesday, February 26th marks the 15th Anniversary of South Plainfield’s first ever GMCT title in Boys Basketball.
The 2003-04 Tigers would withstand the pressure of going through the entire Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament undefeated. Top seeded South Plainfield would defeat White Division rival, and 16th seeded Carteret in the Round of 16 (71-46). Then, face its toughest test of all in the GMCT Elite Eight against neighborhood rival, Piscataway before winning in overtime (59-56). In the semifinals, South Plainfield knocked off Andrew Bynum led St. Joseph’s (58-56), and then rolled past third seeded Colonia in the Championship (57-40).
En route to reaching the summit of GMC Boys Basketball, South Plainfield defeated Piscataway for the first time since the 1984-85 season, the last in which the Tigers would compete in the old Mid-State Conference. Piscataway would not join the GMC until the 1988-89 season. In addition, the Tigers also knocked off St. Joseph’s for the first time ever since joining the GMC in its inaugural season back in 1985-86. Finally, SPHS would also beat Colonia in the state tournament to defeat the Patriots four times in a season, a rare feat against a program that had always been dominant against South Plainfield, especially in the years, Kenny Pace coached at Colonia.
However, the game against Piscataway in the GMCT Quarterfinals at South Brunswick, was the toughest of all. The 9th seeded Chiefs, led by Rodney Freeney, who eventually became the all-time leading scorer at P-Way, gave the Tigers all they could handle before falling in the extra session. After the Chiefs defeated the 25th seeded Metuchen Bulldogs in its Round of 16 contest (64-25), many didn’t think they had a chance against South Plainfield. According to then head coach, Tony DiGiovanni, some believed in the school that P-Way would lose to the Tigers by 50.
GMC Hoops knew better though. Prior to this 2004 GMCT Quarterfinals match-up, South Plainfield and Piscataway had met four times since the two schools joined the Greater Middlesex Conference. Piscataway won all four games including the 1990 GMCT Round of 16, regular season match-up in January 1991 when South Plainfield was ranked 7th in the state at 9-0, in the 1991 GMCT semifinals when 3rd seeded P-Way defeated the 2nd seeded Tigers, 70-54, and in the 1992 GMCT Round of 16. Both schools were long time neighborhood rivals.
P-Way lived up to the rivalry, and gave SPHS all it could get. South Plainfield would benefit though from a couple small things during the course of the contest. A scorebook error in the first half by Piscataway resulted in a technical foul, and a couple of free throws from the Tigers, and then late in the fourth quarter, one of the top foul shooters for the Chiefs, Manny Perotte stepped up to the line with a chance to put the Tigers away, but missed both. Ian Robinson then was fouled with about 10 seconds to go in regulation, and made a free throw to force the extra session.
Marquis Jones urged the Tigers on during the break between the end of regulation and overtime. “It’s a whole new ball game. It’s zero-zero,” the then junior said. Gary Houston took his words to heart. Early in the overtime the senior guard knocked down a three from the right wing to provide the Tigers what would be the final margin of victory. In the semifinals, South Plainfield defeated St. Joseph’s for the first time since joining the GMC in 1985-86, and had an easier time although the Falcons, then led by Andrew Bynum, rallied to make the game close before losing by two.
In the Championship Game, South Plainfield faced off its long time nemesis in Colonia. The Patriots, seeded 3rd in the 2004 GMCT was led by the duo of freshman point guard Zach Rosen, who eventually transferred to St. Benedict’s and played college ball at Penn before playing professionally overseas in Israel, and Nick Smith, who had already scored his 1,000th point in the quarterfinal win over New Brunswick, and would eventually surpass Justin Chiera as the Patriots all time leading scorer the following year. Colonia, which upset defending champion, and 2nd seeded Cardinal McCarrick to get to the final, were unable to overcome South Plainfield.
The Tigers used tremendous run and jump defensive pressure on Colonia, and cruised to a 57-40 victory to win the title. South Plainfield, which swept the season series with the Patriots, and would win another game versus the Pats in the North Jersey Section 2 Group 3 semifinals at SPHS, would win 7 of 9 games against Colonia over a three year period (2003-2005). South Plainfield only had one true big man in the starting line-up and heavily used rotation in Ian Robinson (Western Nebraska Community College), who was roughly 6’4”. Nevertheless, they had a dynamic backcourt made up of Jones (Rhode Island), Darren Smith (Penn), and point guard Corey Gilmore (TCNJ). Houston (Point Park University—NAIA) also provided solid guard play, especially from the perimeter.
South Plainfield also got help off its bench from the likes of Jonathan Buggey, who sank a jumper in the fourth quarter against Colonia to help seal the 2004 GMCT Championship. Buggey is now a middle school hoops coach in Piscataway. Shawn Brown, who had quit the team the year before, returned, and made the most of his second chance with his solid defense off the bench. Kevin Seidenburg, Mike Richards, and Jawaad Caldwell were also on the team as well. It would be the first of back to back GMCT Championships for South Plainfield, which concluded the 2004 GMCT with a 23-0 record. South Plainfield actually made four trips to the GMCT Final Four over a five year period including: 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2007.
As a former player, who was in the program when Jeff Lubreski first took over in the summer of 1986, it was mind boggling for me to witness a South Plainfield boys basketball team reach the Mount Everest of Greater Middlesex Conference Boys Basketball. Recalling that first season under Lubreski, which saw 14 straight losses out of the gate, and a 4-18 finish, I never thought there would be a day where the Tigers would be in the winner’s circle at the RAC. Lubreski was 22-48 in his first three seasons at SPHS. He was also 2-18 in 1997-98 when the Tigers decided to move down to the GMC Blue. Within five years, SP was in the Final Four, and a year later, it was on top of the world in Middlesex County boys basketball.
Although the Tigers fell short of a state title when it lost to Raritan of Hazlet in another memorable game for the 2004 North Jersey Section 2 Group 3 Championship at Plainfield High School to finish 27-1, they had accomplished something that was completely unthinkable. South Plainfield had reached the GMCT Semifinals back in 1991, but lost to Piscataway, which was responsible for two of SP’s losses during that 24-4 campaign. Some thought that the 1990-91 SPHS team led by Eddie Bolton and Craig Kearney, and also had the likes of Bryan Joyner, Malik Sheppard, Karim Stokes, Darrec Jones, and Kashann Simmons was a squad that would only come along about once in a quarter of a century for a town like South Plainfield. However, it would take less about half that time for another team to not only come along, but win it all.