My apologies in advance/Champions Challenge girls hoops preview

Before I get to the extras from Thursday night and some quick ramblings, my apologies in advance in that I won’t be doing a scoreboard and will not be able to cover a game tonight because I have to go to a wedding, so I will be back in the fold just in time for it to snow and cancel everything on Saturday.

This weekend marks the inaugural Champions Challenge, a girls basketball showcase featuring top teams from the state and around the country. It will be held at Monmouth University on Saturday and Sunday, depending on the weather. You can view the schedule here, and the local teams we have competing are Howell, St. John Vianney, Colts Neck and St. Rose.

Howell will have its hands full with Mary Louis Academy at 11 a.m. on Saturday if the games get played as that is when the snow is forecast. Mary Louis Academy is up in New York City and is led by Amanda Burakoski, a guard who is headed to St. John’s. The Mary Louis head coach recently stepped down as his three-year-old twins have been diagnosed with cancer, so assistant Kevin White is now the head coach.

As for Sunday, if all the snow from Saturday gets cleaned up and the games get played, it’s a full slate of top-notch quality. Any fans who want to get a look at Trenton, a perennial TOC contender that will most likely be standing in Colts Neck’s way in Group IV, that game is at 11 a.m. against JFK-Paterson.

At 12:30 p.m., we’ll find out just how high St. John Vianney‘s ceiling is when the undefeated Lancers take on nationally-ranked Oak Hill Academy. Oak Hill features West Virginia recruit Alyssa Bennett, who in two years will be teammates with Colts Neck junior guard Brooke Hampton, who has verbally committed to the Mountaineers. Oak Hill also features the formidable frontcourt tandem of Lakessa Daniel, who is headed to Wake Forest, and Arieal Johnson, who is an athletic 6-5 player who is one of the most highly-recruited players in the nation. St. John Vianney is not going to see post players this good the rest of the season, so that would give the Lancers a world a confidence if they can do a good job against this group. RBC’s Chyna Golden gave them a few problems in the paint, so this will be a tremendous test for talented sophomore forwards Katie O’Reilly and Arron Zimmerman as well as the help defense for SJV. The Lancers’ press will be bigger in this game than normal because it does not want to allow Oak Hill to regularly get in half-court sets with that kind of size advantage.

The 2 p.m. game between Colts Neck and University is the most intriguing game because it could be a Tournament of Champions preview. University has set up shop in the TOC after winning Group I the last two seasons behind arguably the top guard in the state and one of the top five in the nation, junior Laurin Mincey, and point guard Nadirah McKenith, who is committed to St. John’s. They will face a tremendous backcourt from undefeated Colts Neck that features juniors Brooke Hampton, Lauren Clarke, and Tiffany DeTulio. Clarke could also be within striking distance of 1,000 points for her career entering the game. The pressure Colts Neck’s guards will be good to simulate what they may see from St. John Vianney if those two continue on a collision course for the Shore Conference Tournament final, or simulate what Neptune brings to the table and more. If the Cougars can handle Mincy and McKenith, there is no one even in a loaded Shore Conference that should intimidate them.

After the third game of the day, between St. Peter’s and Blair Academy, St. Rose concludes the afternoon with a game against Long Island power North Babylon. Apparently St. John’s just looked at the roster of players participating in this event and recruited all of them as yet another Red Storm recruit, Eugeneia McPherson, is one of North Babylon’s leaders along with one of the top point guards in the nation, Bria Hartley. St. Rose struggled against St. John Vianney (like a lot of teams will this season) in its first test of the season, so we’ll see how its deep crew of guards and freshman center Samantha Clark do here. St. Rose has a knack for playing nonconference teams tough, as it showed last season, so the goal is to emerge from this game with the confidence to go toe-to-toe with the Shore powers like SJV, Rumson, Neptune and Colts Neck, one of whom they almost inevitably will see in the SCT.

Now, on to the boys hoops side. Just a few quick things from last night. I covered the Point Boro-Lakewood game and it was close right until the end with Point Boro pulling out a five-point victory. I stand corrected for thinking that the Panthers would employ a zone against the quicker Piners, as head coach Kevin Hynes is of the opinion that playing zone means you’re telling the other team that they are better than you and you can’t match up with them. I think what it really comes down to when playing Lakewood man-to-man is that teams will back off and dare the Piners to consistently knock down jumpers. Lakewood is a streak-shooting team, so sometimes they will start making shots from everywhere and people will wonder why you didn’t switch up defenses and other times they won’t be able to make anything and you’ll look like a genius. The real key against Lakewood is limiting the Piners to one shot, and I thought in the final four minutes on Thursday, Point Boro did an excellent job of that. Lakewood took some questionable shots and Point Boro made them pay for that by not giving the Piners any second chances, which they had been getting earlier in the game thanks to the rebounding ability of senior Tyquan Strand, who had 19 points and 13 boards.

Point Boro senior Pat Hart continues to be an early Player of the Year candidate, although honestly those types of awards get decided mainly in the Shore Conference and state tournaments because that’s when the great gets separated from the good. Still, I really like Hart’s consistency. I felt like last season he would disappear at times and other times would look like the best player on the floor. Now he’s getting it done every night, which has made a huge difference.

Point Boro also shoots free throws very well, which is always a key characteristic when you get into the tournaments. Plus, they simply outhustle teams. The prime example came on a key offensive rebound and putback in a crowd by Pt. Boro junior guard Wil Hawthorne inside the final two minutes for a huge basket. He simply outhustled several Lakewood defenders to the ball and then powered it up.

Lakewood is dangerous. Hynes was definitely sweating it out because you never know when the Piners can go off on offense. Still, they get bogged down in too much dribbling and one-on-one play sometimes. When they just penetrated and dished to the block, they were getting easy baskets like crazy from Strand. The more chemistry they get on offense, the scarier this team will be. When Jacob Grant and Jarrod Davis get into the lane and elevate, it pretty much comes down to them making the shot or not. Unless you have Joe Willman in there, they are going to get a clean look, so when those two consistently finish in the paint, this team will be handful because then you have Strand attacking the offensive glass from the weakside.

As for the other games, as I wrote in the Top 10 for this week, I don’t know why people seemed to be down on Toms River North for one overtime loss to Toms River East in the WOBM Classic. The Mariners knocked off Brick Memorial behind a balanced scoring effort and seized first place in Class A South. They aren’t about to just hand over that division title to anyone. Toms River North has one of those good/bad scenarios depending on how you look at it. They are so deep in the scoring department that if one or two players are having off games, there are four more guys who can pick up the slack. That makes them hard to defend because you can’t focus on one guy. The flipside of that is that they don’t necessarily have that one go-to guy late in the fourth quarter, which I felt was a problem down the stretch in that earlier loss to Toms River East. Who takes that big shot when you are down by two with 1:30 left in the game?

Brick Memorial will still be right in the mix because this is not a division that anyone is going to run away with. They appear to have two consistent scorers in Matt O’Brien and Steve Zrowka so it really comes down to just getting that complementary scoring after that.

Finally, senior guard Ibn Moye exploded for 37 points in Central’s win over Pinelands on Thursday, and that is why coaches will always be nervous facing Central in a significant game, because Moye has the ability to single-handedly take over the game and create his own shots.

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