CLARK, NJ- After a sluggish performance in the first half, the Arthur L. Johnson High School Crusaders boys varsity basketball team hit the reset button at halftime and came back to win 68-58 against their conference opponent, the New Providence High School Pioneers.
The Crusaders, who finished last year with a 22-5 record and an appearance in the NJSIAA Central, Group 2 State Sectional Final, made the needed adjustments to win.
The teams went into halftime tied at 30-30, after Johnson held a 16-15 lead during a fast-paced, back-and-forth first quarter.
“We knew that New Providence was going to be a difficult opponent to beat,” Johnson head coach Dave Kennedy said. “We had to slow down. Opening night is very exciting for both teams.”
As the third quarter started, New Providence held a 35-30 lead with 6:50 left in the third quarter, before Johnson senior Joe DiProfio ignited an 11-0 Crusaders scoring run with a three-pointer to cut the deficit down to 35-33.
He made the score 36-35 Johnson with a basket and junior Brandon Hund got into the mix with a three-pointer of his own to make it a 39-35 lead and added another basket making it 41-35.
“In the locker room, we had to regroup as a team and come together. We had to play better and come out and play better in the second half,” Johnson senior Jeff Drajin said. “All five [starters] played as one and played our hardest and in the end, we got the win.”
New Providence rallied with a scoring run of their own to tie the game at 41-41 with less than four minutes to go in the third quarter. Johnson controlled the offensive pace in the closing minutes to take a 51-46 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Johnson took control in the opening minutes of the final quarter with a balance on offense, featuring another three-point basket from DiProfio, free throws from Visconti and another basket from Drajin as Johnson built a 58-48 lead with 4:51 left in the fourth quarter.
Johnson’s focus on the defensive side of the ball also contributed to the scoring opportunities, as well as holding off New Providence at times on the night.
“It’s good to know we can focus on our defense when our offense isn’t going too well,” Brenden Kelly said. “We’re a defensive team and knowing we’ll get wins off our defense after knowing our offense isn’t playing well, pushed together, pulled together and pulled it out.”
Visconti scored 16 points, while DiProfio and junior Brenden Kelly scored 15 points apiece on the night. As a team, Johnson connected for eight three-point baskets, three of them from DiProfio and three more from Kelly.
Hund added 12 points and Drajin put up ten points, putting all of Johnson’s starters in double figures on the night.
“We’re getting everybody else involved in it for us,” Kennedy said. “Movement and balance will be important for us down the road.”
“[Johnson] had other kids who stepped up and took some big shots,” New Providence head coach Art Cattano said.
Johnson also made 16 free throws on the night, ten of them in the fourth quarter. They led the entire fourth quarter and put away New Providence to secure their first win in the home opener.
“What was great about our play in the second half was being able to regroup after how bad we played in the first half,” DiProfio said. “The best part about it was that we recovered from our first half.”
“There’s some execution, playing smarter with the ball and we did a good job of making free throws at the end,” Kennedy said. “It was a great team win for us.”
The Pioneers, who finished last year with a 12-12 record and a playoff appearance, received 17 points from junior Dylan Bedder and 13 points apiece from juniors Greg Meyers and Brian Kelly.
“We had a five-point and we didn’t expand on it in the second half,” Cattano added following the game. “I thought it was a good basketball game and a good opener for both teams. Hopefully, we’re going to keep improving.”
As a team, the Pioneers connected for six three-point baskets and controlled the pace of the game earlier on.
“We just put in all our effort in the second half,” Brian Kelly said. “[Johnson] made a lot of shots in the seconds half, but all-in-all, we played a solid game. Our defense was there, [but] they made more shots than us.”
The Johnson Crusaders (1-0) are back in action when they play Roselle Park HS on Tuesday, December 19 at 7:00 p.m.
The New Providence Pioneers (0-1) are back in action for their home opener when they play Dayton HS Tuesday, December 19 at 7:00 p.m.