PISCATAWAY, NJ — Travis Jocelyn had the game of his career and Verona won its first State Championship since 1957, as Jocelyn dropped 30 points to lead Verona to a 69-54 victory over Woodbury in the NJSIAA Group 1 boys’ basketball State Championship at Rutgers University on Sunday.
After regaining momentum to take a 30-21 lead into halftime at the storied Rutgers Athletic Center, Verona struggled to hold Woodbury’s high-powered offense at times in the second half. Woodbury, which at one point went on a 10-0 run to pull within mere points, appeared destined to take the once-commanding lead from Verona.
Then Travis Jocelyn emerged.
Verona’s leading scorer, Jocelyn, a senior, pumped in 20 points in the second half to ultimately pull the Hillbillies ahead of Woodbury. The 30-point performance was a single-game career high for Jocelyn, who now has 975 career points and 483 this season.
“Playing at Rutgers was definitely a really great experience. I wanted to make the most of it, I wanted to come out here with a win, so I went out and gave it my all,” Jocelyn said in the post-game press conference. “I was really aggressive on the boards and in the paint, and I just gave it my best effort.”
Jocelyn wasn’t the only Verona Hillbilly to help pull the team ahead. In the second quarter, with Woodbury breathing down its neck, Verona needed someone to stand up and give it momentum entering halftime. Zack Zaccone was that guy, scoring seven of his 11 points in the second quarter and hitting a buzzer-beater to put Verona up nine entering the half — a deficit that was less than half of that moments before.
“I saw our team struggling in the second quarter, so I wanted to pick it up and help them out so that we could push the lead even further, because they were cutting it down to like, nine points, five points, so I just tried to emphasize myself the rebounds, push, shoot the jump shot if it’s open and attack the basket,” said Zaccone, one of 13 seniors playing for Verona. “The last jump shot, I had no clue how much time was left, I just hoped it went in and we went up by nine.”
Coming out of the half, Woodbury’s Ja’Zere Noel did his best Travis Jocelyn impression, shooting the lights out in the second half and causing some havoc for Verona. Noel finished with 27 points; 21 of them coming in the final 16 minutes. According to Verona head coach Eric McElroy, the Hillbillies knew what to expect from Noel before the game started, but their defensive efforts were able to offset Noel’s shooting dominance.
“We prepped, we got a lot of film on Woodbury, so we were aware of Noel and Estrada, but our focus as a team was to try and limit the damage and get enough from everybody else, and these guys have been doing it all year,” McElroy said. “As far as the defense goes, our help defense was great I thought, we struggled a little bit on the boards in the first half, but we kind of buckled up a little bit in the second half and eliminated second opportunities.”
For Verona, the state championship is extra-special for the vast majority of its roster. Thirteen of Verona’s players are seniors, all of whom will end their high school careers as State Champions. This was a goal of Verona’s early on, and they had constant reminders of it throughout their season, according to senior Jack Farrell.
“We have a big light board in the middle of our locker room, and on it we put like all the recruiting, all the scout teams, and in the top corner, we put goals from the very first practice: Christmas tournament, conference champs, county champs, section champs, group champs and Tournament of Champions (TOC) bound. I think we got Christmas champs, conference champs and now we’ve got Group 1 champs,” Farrell, who chipped in eight points in the game, said. “I think just the fact that we had goals in front of us every single day when we got to practice and strive for motivated us to work harder.”
With Verona’s second ever State Championship victory, the Hillbillies will play in the New Jersey Tournament of Champions, beginning next week. Verona, contingent on the seedings, can run into national powers, such as Linden or Patrick School, as well as additional public champions.
Said Travis Jocelyn, whom the state will definitely take notice of in the prestigious tournament: “[The TOC] is going to be a really good experience for us. We’re a really good team; I feel like we really don’t back down from anything — it doesn’t matter who we play — and we want people to know who Verona is.”
Basketball is the only New Jersey sport to play down to one champion, and Verona is one of six teams that could finish the No. 1 team in the state.
But for now, it’s time to celebrate a State Title.