UNION, NJ — Over the past decade and change, Roselle Catholic has housed one of the nation’s best high school basketball programs.
It has won multiple Tournament of Champions, state championships, developed copious NBA talent, and taken down some of the United States’ best teams. But there’s one thing it had never done: Win the Union County Tournament.
Through timely offense and excellent shooting, top-seeded Roselle Catholic claimed a championship title in the 82nd Union County Tournament (UCT) of boys’ basketball with its 68-58 triumph over defending champion and second-seeded The Patrick School at Kean University’s Harwood Arena. The Lions are now 22-4 and have yet to lose an in state game this year as they enter the state tournament next week.
Athletic wing Kahlil Whitney, one of the most coveted prospects in the class of 2019, dropped a team-high 19 points, and senior guard Ithiel Horton continued his torrid season and tournament with 18 points on four three-pointers to lead Roselle Catholic. Alanzo Frink added 13 points for the Lions, who never trailed in the second half.
Roselle Catholic shot a staggering 72 percent (8-for-11) from the three point line, and 54 percent (24-for-54) overall from the field.
Things got tense at Kean when Patrick School pulled within two points to make it 52-50 after Giorgi Bezhanishvili was awarded a basket on a goaltending call, but Roselle Catholic responded with a 9-0 run to take full control of the game. Like a jet plane taking off at nearby Newark Airport, Josh Pierre-Louis caught flight through an open lane to the basket and threw down a resounding dunk to get the run started, and by the time it was over, the Lions had claimed a 61-50 lead.
That big stretch helped Roselle Catholic recover from a slight blip coming out of halftime which actually saw the Celtics tie it up at 41 at one point. But the Lions could have been in larger trouble if it weren’t for an even more dominant run in the second quarter.
Trailing, 21-25, at the 4:56 mark in the second frame, Horton started and ended a forceful 11-0 Roselle Catholic run. Horton’s six points during that nearly two minute long timespan sandwiched a Whitney two-handed dunk and Jason Battle three-pointer. When Horton hit his second three ball of the run, his team owned a 32-25 lead to provide the game's biggest separation in score yet from either squad.
Delaware-bound Horton’s stellar performance should come at no surprise — the transfer who joined RC when now-defunct St. Anthony closed last June averaged over 15 points during three UCT games. He also hit a three-pointer in the first and fourth quarters, and now owns a team-best 48 from downtown.
Patrick School did avenge a 35-29 halftime deficit and came back to tie the score at 41 with four minutes left in the third quarter after Al-Amir Dawes drained a three ball. However, Roselle Catholic used its height and responded with a 6-0 run, and would never again relent the lead. Whitney got the run started with a bucket to make it 43-41, then Naz Reid threw down a thunderous dunk on a pump fake and drive move, and seconds later, Whitney caught a loud slam off a steal. By that time, the Lions had a 47-41 lead, and won over the nearly sold out crowd with their high flying acts.
Whitney, a 6-foot-6 forward/guard, continued to stake his claim amongst the game's elite with his performance. He is now averaging over 13 points-per-game against the state's top competition, and holds over 15 NCAA Division I offers.
Though very early in the game, Roselle Catholic trailed by as much as seven points, which happened after Valdir Manuel hit a three for the Celtics to give his team a 19-12 lead. The Lions slowly cut the deficit, and tied things up at 21 apiece when Horton finished a steal and pass from Pierre-Louis 53 seconds into the second quarter. Whitney's dunk during the 11-0 gave RC its first lead since it was 4-3 just 90 seconds into the game.
Manuel, an uncommitted senior recruit holding offers from schools such as Rutgers, Seton Hall, and Temple, led Pat’s with a game-best 24 points. Teammate Bezhanishvili, also a major Division I prospect, added 16 points for the Celtics, who are defending N.J. TOC champs and have won 20 UCT championships when accounting for their predecessor, St. Patrick High School.
Receiving the tournament's No. 1 seed, Roselle Catholic received a bye into the quarterfinal round. The Lions then defeated public school powers Scotch Plains-Fanwood and Linden in the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds, respectively, to reach the championship game.
Roselle Catholic begins its quest for a TOC title on Tuesday, when it hosts Koinonia Academy in the Non-Public, North B state tournament first round.