PATERSON, NJ - John F. Kennedy High School avenged last year’s Passaic County Tournament loss to rival Wayne Hills with a 44-39 heart- stopping win over the visiting Patriots on Saturday.
Freshman guard Jayquan Briggs scored nine points in the decisive fourth quarter to lead the Knights to the tournament final.
Paterson Head Coach Tommie Patterson opted to field a starting five of seniors Avante Gilbert, Germir Robinson, and Joshuel White, along with juniors Deishon Harrison and Jalen Hargrove.
A game opening steal and coast-to-coast layup by the Patriots’ Nebi Ademi was answered by two free throws by JFK’s Hargrove. Wayne Hills forward/center Pulast Thacker then challenged Gilbert in the lane. The result was a block and tie-up, possession Kennedy. Patriots’ guard Jason Sanfilippo atoned for an errant Wayne Hills cross-court pass with a successful three-pointer. Harrison then grabbed a rebound in the paint for Kennedy and dumped off to fellow senior/power forward DeJourn Cook for an easy banker. Robinson then fed Gilbert who converted a 15-foot jumper near the free throw line. A steal and beautiful drive by Harrison added another two for the Knights.
After both squads traded long shots, neither of which came close to the rim, a Wayne Hills dribbler fell while attempting to navigate the baseline. However, a Kennedy pass into the low post was knocked out of bounds. The first frame ended with closing shot attempts by both teams resulting in frustration.
The second quarter saw a quick, inside score by Cook via a nifty assist from White. Gilbert then won a battle with Thacker under the boards with a banker off the glass. However, soon thereafter, the Patriots’ senior floor leader Jake Belli caught JFK’s defense napping with a quick inbounds pass from under the Kennedy basket to Ademi for an easy score. The play was a microcosm of the Patriots’ offense for the entire evening. Belli performed virtually all dribbling chores for Wayne Hills. The heavy responsibility made the senior floor leader’s conversion of a trio of successive three-pointers late in the game all the more remarkable.
Following a sensational drive, Gilbert converted one of two from the free throw line. The Patriots responded with a successful give-and-go between Ademi and Belli. The Patriots’ junior guard/forward Michael Joyce was shadowed by Gilbert on a fast break layup attempt in which the latter was called for goaltending. Kennedy responded on their next offensive possession with nice ball rotation but Hargrove was tagged with a charging foul after wheeling around at the low post for a shot attempt. Harrison’s desperation shot attempt at the first half buzzer bounced off the rim, resulting in a 17-16 Kennedy lead.
Harrison was able to convert a short shot in the paint to begin the third frame while Ademi and Cook continued to furiously jostle under the boards. Following a defensive rebound by Thacker, the Patriots’ sophomore Shivram Sharma drove the lane for a sensational, twisting-turning lay-in. With the score knotted at 20-20 with 5:03 left in the quarter, the outcome of a wild collision and scramble for the ball at half court was a fast break score by Wayne Hills junior forward Michael Joyce.
Following a dribbling marathon by Belli, Wayne Hills committed an over-and-back violation. However Belli then found Ademi, who twice got behind Kennedy’s defense, for identical scoring plays and easy baskets. Gilbert misfired on a 15-footer for JFK but Cook was there for the put-back and score. The final quarter began with the Patriots clinging to a four point lead.
An offensive rebound by Hargrove led to two successful free throws by the powerful JFK center. Belli replied by racing up court and converting a 10-foot stop and pop. It was then that Briggs initially made his presence known with a nice feed into Gilbert who converted off the glass. With a little over five minutes left on the clock, Ademi was tagged with an over-the-back foul while attempting to grab an offensive rebound. After Wayne Hills lost the ball out of bounds, Briggs picked a pocket and raced toward the basket for a fast break layup. Although the shot missed the mark, the amazing display of athleticism brought the capacity crowd to its feet. Briggs soon followed with another spectacular drive from the top of the key, through heavy traffic, for a score.
With Kennedy sophomore Jaewaun Abrams sharing point-guard duties with Harrison, the Patriots’ Joyce was fouled on an offensive rebound and converted one of two free throw attempts. However, JFK responded when Hargrove snatched a miss by Harrison and handed off to Briggs, speeding through the lane, for a three-point play. A Harrison precision pass to Briggs for a cherry-pick score behind the Patriots’ defense further bolstered Kennedy’s new found advantage. Two more successful charity stripe offerings by Gilbert resulted in an insurmountable 38-30 Kennedy lead which even the aforementioned long shooting success of Belli could not overcome. Any anxiety of Knights’ fans was further consoled by the ball handling of Harrison who also made several successful trips to the free throw line. A defensive rebound by Abrams and subsequent out-let pass to Gilbert for a resounding tomahawk dunk was icing on the cake for the home hardwood heroes.
The balanced Knights’ scoring attack was led by Gilbert with 12 points and Briggs with 11. Harrison and Cook both added 8 points apiece. Wayne Hills was topped by Belli with 16 tallies. Ademi contributed nine scores.
Kennedy travels to face Clifton for the Passaic County championship crown on Saturday, February 23. The game will be played at Wayne Valley High School.
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