PATERSON, NJ - The semi-final state basketball match between John F. Kennedy and Hackensack High School went down to the wire with only a missed free throw by the visiting Comets and a rebound at the final buzzer by JFK center Jalen Hargrove preserving the Knights’ 61-60 victory.
The contest between the first seeded Knights and their fourth seeded opponents proved to be one of see-saw of momentum. Paterson enjoyed what seemed to be a comfortable halftime lead, ahead by a score of 30-20. However, the Comets roared back by outscoring their opponents 26 to 12 in the third frame to forge ahead by four points, setting the table for the fourth quarter fireworks.
Paterson Head Coach Tommie Patterson opted to start seniors Deishon Harrison, Jaylen Hargrove, and Mark Heber, complimented by sophomores Jayquan Briggs and Yasen Crawford. Hackensack Head Coach Gordon Whiting countered with three seniors and two tenth graders of his own with elders Kevin Mateo, Amire Walker, and Seth Brown taking the court alongside underclassmen Shawn Reckley and Curtis Whiting.
The Comets controlled the opening tip with Walker directing traffic from the point. Heber got the Knights on the board by bringing the ball down court, dribbling to the left of the key, and knocking down a 20-foot jumper. Taking the ball again, the Comets responded with a three-pointer from the right wing by Reckley following a rebound in the paint by Brown.
Hargrove responded for the Knights by muscling in from the low post for two off the glass. Mateo then nabbed a defensive rebound and cruised coast-to-coast for a score but, harassed at mid-court by Crawford, coughed up the leather. However, the Knights returned the favor as Briggs and Crawford mishandled the ball near midcourt and Walker turned a steal into a convoy score.
The Knights’ sophomore tandem quickly recovered as Briggs snatched a defensive rebound and fired to Crawford for a full court fast break and bucket. Harrison then glided up court, eluded a defender near the key, did the same in the paint, and curled a sensational, left-handed layup off the glass. With scant seconds left on the clock, the Comets inbounded from the sideline near midcourt, the receptor bobbled the ball while running at full speed, yet no traveling call was whistled. The dismay of Kennedy fans was compounded as a 25-foot prayer miraculously banked in at the buzzer.
Hackensack opened the second quarter with an 11-9 lead and by triple teaming Hargrove every time he touched the ball at the low post. However, the JFK center grabbed a defensive board, looked up court, and fired the outlet pass to Briggs for a two-dribble, fast break score. The Comets’ Mateo responded with a nice 10-foot runner. From the low block, Hargrove passed to Briggs for a 15-foot jump shot from the left wing. The latter then drew a reaching foul but Mateo raced the length of the court for a score after the Knights missed two consecutive shots. JFK was able to rebound with Carnegie completing a three-point play in the paint after receiving a scoop pass from Briggs.
The half wound down as the Comets were bolstered by a successful trey by Walker and a cherry-pick, fast break layup by Mateo. Shortly thereafter, Mateo and Paterson junior Kyle Readus collided at midcourt with a foul being whistled on the latter. Harrison then picked up a loose ball and jetted all the way for a layup and Kennedy senior Bre’quan Moore delivered an NBA-like shot rejection. After the Knights hit on one of two free throws following a technical that was called on Hackensack, Heber swished a bomb from beyond the key.
Ahead by a score of 25-20 with 1:30 remaining, the Knights ran time off the clock until Harrison connected on a wide open three-pointer from the right wing. Heber then picked up loose change in Hackensack’s lane, dribbled the length of the court, but was hammered while shooting. Both subsequent two free throws tickled the twine and neither squad was able to score in the last frantic moments, resulting in the aforementioned half time score of 30-20.
The third quarter commenced with two consecutive shot blocks by Hargrove and an early timeout called by Hackensack’s Whiting who loudly corrected his troops for all to hear. The strategy seemed to work as the Comets were able to overcome several baskets by Harrison and forge their remarkable comeback.
Brown misfired on a dunk attempt but sank two subsequent charity stripe offerings. Mateo followed with two more successful free throws and a Kennedy fumble led to two more Comet points, resulting in a 35-34 Hackensack lead, forcing Patterson to call a time out for the Knights.
In a remarkable sequence of events, Hackensack’s Mateo found himself sprawled in the lane but managed to literally roll the ball to Brown who sank one of two free throws after being fouled. Comets’ senior Cameron Taylor added to Kennedy’s woes by calmly sinking a three-pointer from deep in the right corner. Carnegie then rescued an out of bounds ball under his own basket and by heaving it off a defender. What seemed to be a burst of momentum for the Knights, though, was quickly squelched courtesy of a coast-to-coast layup/dunk by Brown. Teammate junior Neftali Valentin notched a put back and Mateo cashed in on one of two free throw attempts to stretch Hackensack’s lead to 46-39.
In what proved to be the key substitution of the evening, Patterson called the number of sophomore forward Jesus Romero who immediately contributed with a perfect three-pointer from the left wing and helped the Knights break Hackensack’s determined half-court trap.
The decisive eight minutes began with the Comets clinging to a 46-42 lead. The Knights were buoyed by two quick power moves and buckets by Hargrove from the paint. Romero then grabbed a defensive board and fired a bullet which concluded in a JFK score, tying the score at 46-46 with 7:22 remaining. However, the Comets stayed tough as Mateo traveled the length of the hardwood and converted. Romero then drove from the left wing and appeared to be fouled in the lane but no whistle sounded. After Whiting signaled for a timeout to avoid the Comets being called for a five-second violation, Mateo swished another three-point bomb.
With the game on the line, Harrison drove into the paint for a score and provided a perfect assist on an inbounds pass under his own basket for two more. The Knights’ floor general nabbed a crucial offensive rebound and dished to Heber who fired a nothing-but-net three point from the right corner, the bomb knotting the score at 53 as raucous noise from the capacity, standing room only, crowd elevated.
However, the Comets’ Mateo came right back with a rainbow three of his own.
Readus and Harrison then forced an opponent to step on the far sideline and Heber delivered a spectacular drive across the lane for a score. Harrison also drilled a long rainbow from deep in the right corner. Despite the clutch offensive scores, Hackensack still clung to a 60-58 lead.
The JFK full court press forced another crucial Comets’ step on the sideline, turnover, and, with 41 seconds left and the score knotted at 60, a tie-up in the lane and missed Hackensack shot that saw Crawford and Carnegie re enter the contest. Heber managed to dribble 20 seconds off the clock and drove the lane. Hammered in the act, he sank one of two free throw attempts providing a tenuous 61-60 JFK lead.
With seven clicks left, the Comets inbounded the ball and two passes covered the entire length of the floor. A running shot failed but the shooter was fouled before the attempt.
A mere two seconds remaining, the first of a one-and-one attempt rolled tantalizing off the rim as Hargrove grabbed the rebound and hung on for dear life.
Kennedy players and fans rushed the court to congratulate their heroes as the buzzer sounded and the Knights were able to escape by the narrowest of margins.
The state final will be hosted by Kennedy on Tuesday evening, March 10, at 6:00 p.m.
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