SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ -- The Hunterdon Central boys basketball team made the 30-mile trek to Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School Thursday afternoon, got off the bus and promptly started shooting the lights out.
The Red Devils made more than 70 percent of their shots in the first quarter, built a 16-point lead and then had to ward off a strong second-half charge by Scotch Plains-Fanwood for a 58-49 victory.
Matt Ciszkowski scored 18 points and Eric Molto handed out eight assists to go with 12 points for Hunterdon Central (15-8), which tuned up for Saturday afternoon's game against Sparta in the Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex Tournament semifinal, to be played at Hunterdon Central. Ciszkowski and Molto are both junior guards.
"I didn't want to say this before the game, but I was kind of worried about this being a 'trap' game," said Hunterdon Central head coach Mike Falco, whose team has won eight games in a row. "We have a big game against Sparta and I was hoping we wouldn't just look ahead to that game. Fortunately, we didn't come out here and lay an egg."
There were no eggs, and certainly no bricks, from the torrid-shooting Red Devils in the early going. Ciszkowski raced in for a layup right off the opening tap and Hunterdon Central was off to the races, banging 10 of 14 shots and burying five 3-pointers in the opening quarter. Ciszkowski scored eight points and Molto drained a pair of 3s in the opening period to spark Central to a 25-11 lead.
"We have gotten off to some good starts lately. We did against Somerville (in a victory Tuesday night)," Falco said. "You have to give credit to these guys. When you knock down that many shots early, it opens things up for everybody."
Indeed, Hunterdon Central's scorching perimeter accuracy in the first quarter forced Scotch Plains-Fanwood to make some defensive adjustments, and the Red Devils countered by doing their damage in the second quarter with dribble penetration rather than 3-point shooting. But no matter where they were shooting from, one common catalyst was the slick playmaking from Molto.
"Eric did an excellent job shooting the ball and running the offense," Falco said. "We needed him to with (starting guard) Joe Sei out. He rolled his ankle (recently), but we hope to have him back by Saturday."
Swingman Brian Johansson finished with 10 points for Hunterdon Central, which led by as much as 16 early in the third quarter before SPF made a game of it, outscoring Hunterdon Central, 23-12, to move to within five, 54-49, after Justin Guy hit a driving layup for the Raiders with 24 seconds left in the game.
Ciszkowski and Hercek each hit two free throws in the final 21 seconds to enable the Red Devils to seal the victory.
Junior center Liam Mahr had 11 points and nine rebounds for Scotch Plains, and sophomore guard Jaden Carter also finished with 11 points in the loss.
"Scotch Plains has an inside presence and they are a team that you have to play 32 minutes against," Falco said. "(Coach) Steve Siracusa does a great job with them, and they're the kind of team you have to grind it out with toughness to win."
Hunterdon Central now turns its attention toward Sparta and Saturday's HWS semifinal, which will tip off at 1:45 at the HCHS Field House, which is hosting both semifinal games.
"Sparta is a team with some physical inside guys, and they can also hurt you from outside," Falco said.