SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ -- After having its big second half lead dwindle to two points late in its state tournament matchup with Dwight-Englewood on Wednesday night, the Union Catholic boys basketball team did what it's been doing best over its last five games.
They dug down deep and showed a lot of heart and grit as the Vikings combined a suffocating defense with clutch free throw shooting to secure a 67-62 victory in the opening round of the NJSIAA North Jersey, Non-Public A Tournament in Scotch Plains.
The surging Vikings, who have now won five straight games since a tough loss to Johnson on Feb. 15 in the Union County Tournament, advanced to play at top-seeded Bergen Catholic in the quarterfinal round at 7 p.m. on Friday. Bergen Catholic (19-7) is ranked No. 19 in the state.
Union Catholic, now 16-10 on the season under Coach Jim Reagan Jr., was in control of the game and led by double digits for most of the first half and third quarter. But Dwight-Englewood went on a 10-0 run to close out the third quarter to cut the UC lead to 46-40.
Then with 1:50 left in the fourth quarter, Union Catholic's lead was sliced to 62-60, and it appeared Dwight-Englewood had all the momentum.
But the Vikings, who never trailed in the game, refused to lose and regrouped to finish strong after a key timeout.
"When they got within two points we were in a timeout and Coach Reagan said if we just get a couple stops we would win the game,'' said senior forward Matt Tracey, who led all scorers with 20 points and hauled down several big rebounds with his relentless tenacity. "So we went out and locked down on defense and got those stops, some huge rebounds, and hit our free throws to get the win. We weren't going to let our season end. This was our best win of the season.''
Multiple players stepped up big to deliver the victory for the Vikings, and there were several key moments down the stretch that led to the win.
One of the biggest sequences of the game came when Bradley Young, who scored 17 points and played had a great all-round game, hit two free throws with 43 seconds to go to put UC ahead 64-60.
Then, Caleb Reed went up high to grab a defensive rebound and was fouled with 29 seconds left. Although he missed his two foul shots, Reed, who finished with nine points, followed his miss with another rebound in traffic. He dished to point guard Elijah Barlow, who was fouled. Barlow, who scored 12 points and did a great job running the offense with dribble penetration and great decision-making, hit three free throws down the stretch to ice the victory.
Union Catholic limited Dwight-Englewood to just two points over the final two minutes, both coming on free throws.
"We knew the game was on the line, and everyone stepped up,'' said Tracey. "Caleb was great for us. He was all over the boards grabbing rebounds, and Bradley and Elijah played great. We played with a lot of heart and desire.''
Tracey, who has now scored 74 points over the last three games, said that as deflating as the loss was to Johnson, that defeat forced the team to look in the mirror and it sparked the Vikings to its recent surge.
"I'm so proud of this team for the way we are finishing this season,'' said Tracey. "Every one of this team has played their hardest since that loss to Johnson. The first practice after that loss was the
best practice we had all season. We decided that we needed to give it our all the rest of the season and play hard for one another. This is my last year playing basketball, so I'm going out strong and playing with as much energy and intensity as I can in every game. And the other guys on the team are playing the same way.''
Tracey said that while Wednesday's victory was very exciting, it's time to look ahead.
"We enjoyed this win for a day, but now it's time to get ready for Bergen,'' said Tracey.