EDISON, NJ -- St. Thomas Aquinas showed its height, athleticism and supreme basketball skill in the first half.
In the second half, South Brunswick showed its heart.
Trailing by as many as 22 points midway through the third quarter, South Brunswick rallied to come within 10 points before losing to the Trojans, 63-52, in the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament championship game before an overflow crowd Friday night at Middlesex County College.
Although he wasn't the leading scorer, 6-6 center Derrick Grant represented the most tangible aspects of St. Thomas Aquinas that South Brunswick could not overcome. Grant scored 13 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, blocked five shots and threw down three dunks, including one to open the game and set the tone for the second-seeded Trojans (23-4).
With Grant dominating the game defensively and on the glass, South Brunswick (21-5) was unable to generate its usually uptempo and prolific offensive attack. St. Thomas Aquinas cleared virtually double the amount of rebounds the Vikings got, outrebounding South Brunswick, 41-21. Quadry Adams, a Wake Forest commit, scored 17 points and hurt the Vikings with his ability to slash through the lane. Adams also had two dunks. Tristian Jefferies had 16 points and nine rebounds in the win.
"Rebounding was our downfall," South Brunswick head coach Joe Hoehman said. "Our kids were battling, but (Aquinas' players) were a little bigger and a little stronger than us. If we missed one block-out, they were getting second chances. And if we tried to help down low on defense, they were hitting their 3-pointers. That's a tough recipe to overcome."
Senior swingman Justin Carbone led South Brunswick with 20 points, 17 of which came in the second half as he sparked the Vikings' comeback effort that began in earnest with just under five minutes left in the third quarter. Carbone, who averages close to 20 points, had gone scoreless for the first 15:59 of the first half, until he hit a 35-foot, buzzer-beating 3-point bank shot as the second quarter ended.
That brought South Brunswick within 17 at the half, 34-17, but St. Thomas Aquinas opened the third quarter with a 7-2 spurt to take its biggest lead, 44-22, with about five minutes left.
At that point, one of two things usually happen to the team on the short end of such a lopsided score in a championship game--they either wilt and fall behind by 30, or they dig deep and claw back.
South Brunswick clawed back.
Carbone's long-range banker at the first-half buzzer wasn't a game-changer, but it certainly seemed to get the 6-4 senior going. During one stretch of third quarter, he hit five of seven shots. With the Vikings trailing, 44-22, Carbone scored the game's next nine points. He was fouled making a layup and converted the ensuing free throw. He scored in transition after Devin Strickland's midcourt steal. Carbone tipped in a missed shot. And, with 2:34 left in the third quarter, he scored on a runner in the lane to cut the Trojans' lead to 44-31, bringing the capacity crowd back into the game.
"It was hard for Justin to get good looks in the first half," Hoehman said. "But in the second half, we were able to run, jump around more, get out in the open floor more and we turned them over a little bit. This year, in addition to shooting from outside, Justin has been getting to the rim more. He gets to the glass better than he used to."
St. Thomas Aquinas nudged the lead back up to 17 by the end of the third quarter. But the Vikings, now able to effect their trademark halfcourt trap that they were unable to deploy in the first half, weren't done rallying. A 7-0 run brought them within 10, 53-43, with 4:15 left. Carbone scored off a backdoor feed from sophomore guard Yathin Vemula, Carbone drained a 3-pointer and then Strickland turned a steal into a layup to cut the gap to 10.
It is possible that the rally may have had more ammo, or that the Vikings may have been able to come out more crisply at the start of the contest, if they'd had fresher legs less than 48 hours after completing a draining, 88-77, double-overtime semifinal victory over St. Joseph Wednesday night.
"Yes, fatigue probably hurt us a little bit," Hoehman said. "When you play 40 minutes instead of 32, and then have one day's rest, as intense as that game was, it has an effect. We went very light in practice yesterday. That first half wasn't us. We usually have at least one run every game. The fact that we played the last 16 minutes and outscored them in the second half, hopefully that gives them some confidence going into the states (state tournament that begins next week). I'm proud of the guys."
The last time South Brunswick was as close as 10 was with 3:01 left after two free throws by Ty Murchison to make the score 65-55.
In addition to the marked rebounding advantage Aquinas had, the Trojans made 54 percent of their shots (25 of 46) and sank six of 11 3-pointers. South Brunswick, which averages 75 points a game, shot just 34.4 percent (20 for 58) overall and five-for-20 from outside the arc. However, Vikings guards Vemula, Murchison, Akhil Edekar, Andrew Tesser and Alex Strange took care of the ball, as South Brunswick committed just seven turnovers to 15 turnovers for Aquinas.
Vemula scored nine points and was the only Viking to hit half his shots (four of eight). Strickland, who had eight points, led South Brunswick in rebounding with six, four of which came on the offensive glass.
Next for South Brunswick is a first-round home game in the Central Jersey, Group 4 state tournament against Jackson Memorial Tuesday night. Just as they were in the GMC Tournament, the Vikings are the fourth seed in Central Jersey, Group 4.
GAME NOTES: St. Thomas Aquinas won its first GMCT championship since 1992, when the backcourt combo of Anthony Rosa and Greg Fowler led the then-Bishop Ahr Trojans over St. Joe's in the final at Rutgers. ...South Brunswick was making its second GMCT final appearance in five years. ...Every seat was filled at MCC, including the auxiliary bleachers that were installed behind the basket on the deep side of the gym. Site officials allowed many other fans to sit or stand behind roped-off areas on the baseline and in the corners. The last GMCT final at the Rutgers Athletic Center was in 2018.
SOUTH BRUNSWICK (21-5): Vemula 4-0-1-9, Edekar 0-0-2-2, Murchison 1-1-2-7, Carbone 6-2-2-20, Strickland 4-0-0-8, Strange 0-0-0-0, Tesser 0-2-0-6, Davis 0-0-0-0. TOTALS: 15-5-7-52.
ST. THOMAS AQUINAS (23-4): Adams 8-0-1-17, Jefferies 3-3-3-18, Harris 2-2-0-10, Henry 0-1-0-3, Grant 6-0-1-13, Abdullah 0-0-2-2. TOTALS: 19-6-7-63.
South Brunswick 11 6 16 19 -- 52
St. Thomas Aqu. 15 19 16 13 -- 63