UNION, NJ -- When coaches guide their teams through practices and put together a game plan, they rarely dream of it going as perfectly as the Hunterdon Central boys basketball team's offense hummed along in the first half Sunday evening.
The Red Devils made more than 60 percent of their shots in the first quarter and turned the ball over just one time in the first half, building a commanding lead on their way to an 85-65 victory over Mater Dei of Monmouth County in the Hearts to Hands Invitational at Kean University.
Junior swingman Brian Johansson scored 26 points and handed out three assists for Hunterdon Central (4-6), which put up 28 points in building a 12-point lead in a fast-paced, crisply played first quarter that highlighted all of the team's strengths.
"That is, ideally, how we want to play," said Hunterdon Central head coach Mike Falco. "We had 13 assists and just one turnover in the first half, and that is a recipe for winning basketball. The shots were going in, and that's as well as we have played offensively this season."
Hunterdon Central sank six 3-pointers in the first quarter, with four different players connecting from deep – Joseph Sei (twice), Michael Zaragoza (twice), Matt Ciszkowski and Charles Gillikin. Sei had a team-leading eight points in the first quarter. But the Red Devils' early offensive efficiency was not just about them shooting well from the perimeter. They also frustrated Mater Dei with their crisp cuts off the ball, their pinpoint passing and their aggressiveness in pushing the ball up the floor and dictating a high tempo.
“We preach the concept of giving up a good shot in favor of a great shot, as long as you can find the open guy,” Falco said.
Hunterdon Central took a 28-16 lead into the second quarter, then opened that period with a 12-2 run for a 40-18 lead. Johansson scored the first five points of the quarter on a layup off a pass from Sei and then three free throws in four attempts. After a Mater Dei basket, Conner Hercek fed a cutting Zaragoza for a layup, Eric Molto found Hercek underneath for a layup and Gillikin’s entry pass was perfect for a Zaragoza layup and a 22-point lead.
Five Hunterdon Central players scored in double figures. In addition to Johansson, Sei finished with 14 points, Zaragoza and Gillikin had 11 points each, and Molto scored 10. Ciszkowski finished with nine points and led the pass-happy Red Devils with seven assists.
In all, Hunterdon Central looked worlds better than a team that began the weekend with a 2-6 record before beating West Windsor-Plainsboro North, 68-45, on Saturday and then dominating a Mater Dei team that came into Sunday’s showcase game with a 6-2 record.
“Brian Johansson was our only returning player who got major varsity minutes last season,” Falco said. “For a lot of these kids moving up from JV, even though they’re talented, the speed of the game is an adjustment. Teams scout you and try to take away your strength, which is something that doesn’t happen on the JV level. And our schedule has been tough, with games against teams like Watchung Hills, Gill-St. Bernard’s and Rutgers Prep."
“We have already come a long way, though, from opening night," he added. "I am happy with the way the team has stayed the course.”