BASKING RIDGE, NJ -- There are few, if any, basketball teams in the Skyland Conference that are giving as many significant varsity minutes to two freshmen as Ridge is. There may not be many in all of North Jersey that have two ninth-graders playing more significant roles.
"If you had told me in October," said Ridge head boys basketball coach Brian Feath, "that I'd be playing two freshmen 20 to 26 minutes a game, I wouldn't have believed you."
Freshman guard Gavin Kreitz came off the bench to score 20 points and freshman center Jayden Hylton blocked four shots and came down with five rebounds in a reserve role to help Ridge to a 50-37 victory Thursday night over Hillsborough.
Senior guard Mike DeMarco connected for 12 points for Ridge (3-5) before picking up his fifth foul in a game that the Red Devils seized control of early and never really let go.
Senior guard John Pikiell, the Ridge "glue guy" who contributed four assists and some outstanding defense in the front of the Red Devils' zone, started the game with a putback and a 3-pointer to give Ridge a 5-0 lead. Soon thereafter, with the score 5-2, Kreitz and Hylton came off the bench, and the effect was like a keg of dynamite.
"They bring energy off the bench and give the team a lift," Feath said of his ninth-graders. "They're smart players and they practice really well for freshmen."
Kreitz turned a steal at one end into a layup at the other, fed center Mike Zima for a transition layup and then knocked down a 3-pointer with the help of one of Nate Herrera's five assists to spark Ridge to a 12-2 lead late in the opening quarter. Meanwhile, the presence of Hylton teaming with Zima at the back of the Ridge zone made it very tough for Hillsborough to mount a consistent halfcourt offense.
"Gavin and 'Jay' are not playing so much because we lack guys," Feath was quick to emphasize, "they really deserve those minutes. Jay was great in our overtime win over J.P. Stevens (last Saturday). He came up with a huge rebound in overtime of that game. The sky's the limit with these two."
On Thursday night, though, the crisp play was communal. Herrera and Pikiell played strong floor games, DeMarco and Kreitz repeatedly took their men off the dribble and went to the basket with authority, and Hylton and Zima (eight points, five rebounds, three blocks) were a positive presence in the post as well as at the defensive end.
Hillsborough had battled back from a 17-point deficit to close to within nine, 34-25, going into the fourth quarter, which began with a Kreitz trey off a Pikiell assist. After two Hillsborough free throws, Kreitz drove for a basket and then grabbed a long defensive rebound and went coast-to-coast for an acrobatic layup that extended Ridge's lead to 41-27.