NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ -- Sophomore guard Yathin Vemula spent the first half picking up the slack for his struggling older teammates with 16 minutes of dazzling basketball.
When the epic contest reached a second overtime, those veteran teammates, in turn, picked Vemula up.
Vemula scored 17 of his 22 points in the first half, but missed two free throws with 0.1 seconds left in the first overtime, either one of which would have given South Brunswick a victory. But, in the end, it was Vemula, soaring in for the last basket of the game on a breakaway with a second left in the second OT to cap a 15-4 flurry for the Vikings as they pulled away.
It was all part of fourth-seeded South Brunswick's 88-77, double OT, upset victory over top-seeded St. Joseph of Metuchen in the semifinal round of the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament before a capacity crowd at New Brunswick High School Wednesday night.
The Vikings (21-4), who have won nine in a row, will play second-seeded St. Thomas Aquinas for the championship Friday at 8 p.m. at Middlesex County College. St. Thomas Aquinas defeated Edison, 72-55, in Wednesday's other semifinal.
Senior swingman Justin Carbone scored 27 points, grabbed seven rebounds and handed out four assists for South Brunswick. Carbone, who hit 12 of 19 shots from the floor, including two 3-pointers, was a steady go-to presence throughout the pulsating contest, but it took awhile for the other two high-scoring members of South Brunswick's normal "big three" to get going offensively.
Senior forward Devin Strickland finished with 16 points, four rebounds, three assists and five steals, and junior guard Ty Murchison had nine points, nine rebounds and five assists for South Brunswick. Junior guard Akhil Edekar finished with 12 points and two assists before fouling out.
But, in the first half, Strickland and Murchison combined to make just two of 11 shots--and despite that, the Vikings still had a four-point lead at halftime.
There were two reasons for that. One was the exceptional care the Vikings took of the ball, committing just two turnovers in a largely mistake-free opening half. The other was Vemula. The sophomore hit the first four shots he attempted in the first quarter, three of them from 3-point range. That brought St. Joseph's defenders out to guard him more closely, and then the precocious guard spent the rest of the half slicing and dicing his way past the Falcons with some emphatic dribble-penetration.
Vemula sank seven of the eight shots he attempted from the field in the half.
"Yathin, he's only a sophomore, but he had such a big first half for us," said Carbone, who hit four of seven shots in the opening half.
"In that first half, Yathin played the best I have seen him play so far," South Brunswick head coach Joe Hoehman said. "He played with such confidence, and he made several big plays for us in the first half."
South Brunswick built a lead as large as 11, 52-41, with 2:40 left in the third quarter after Murchison hit a 3-pointer. St. Joe's (18-8) came back with an 18-7 run to tie the game, 59-59, with 5:10 left in the fourth quarter. It was nip and tuck for the rest of regulation, with Carbone sinking an 18-foot jumper with nine seconds to go in the fourth quarter to tie the game, 69-69, and send it into overtime (after a rebound basket by St. Joe's came a fraction of a second after the fourth-quarter buzzer).
With the score tied, 73-73, in the first overtime, South Brunswick had the final possession, and was unable to get a shot off. However, Vemula was fouled in a scramble for a loose ball at the top of the circle with 0.1 seconds left. South Brunswick was in the double bonus, so the sophomore went to the line for two foul shots.
Free throws had been a point of contention for the Vikings most of the game. They made just 10 of 21 from the line overall, and Vemula missed both, as St. Joe's--and the game itself--received a second life.
"We just told (Vemula) to keep his head up, don't put his head down, because we need him in this game," Carbone said.
Vemula opened the overtime by sending a lead pass ahead to Murchison for a fastbreak layup. Carbone hit a putback with 1:59 left in the second OT to give the Vikings a 77-73 lead. After a driving basket by Amari Campbell of St. Joe's, Strickland sank a layup off a pass from Murchison with 1:26 left for a 79-75 South Brunswick lead. A rebound basket by Alex Strange (in for Edekar) extended the Vikings' lead to 81-75 as they started to finally gain some breathing room in a game that could take one's breath away.
"When the game went into overtime, we knew we could still play with them," Strickland said. "Coach just told us to relax and play within ourselves."
"After the first overtime, I asked them, 'How do you want to defend them?', because nothing else we tried was working (on defense)," Hoehman said. "We went after them, we got some steals, and some deflections and were able to run off of that. We were gonna go down swinging."
Strickland's defense was a particular spark in the overtime sessions, as he deflected several passes and made some huge steals to short-circuit some Falcon possessions.
"Devin is our sparkplug," Hoehman said. "He does a little bit of everything for us. If your shot's not falling, we ask, 'What else will you do to impact this game?' Devin got some deflections, some rebounds, and made some outlet passes to get us going."
South Brunswick won despite being outrebounded by St. Joe's, 41-26. That was offset by the Vikings committing just seven total turnovers while St. Joe's committed 18. Both teams shot virtually 50 percent from the floor (South Brunswick 36-for-71, St. Joe's 31-for-63).
K-Shawn Shulters led four St. Joe's scorers in double figures with 21 points. Forward Adam Slawinski gave the Falcons some huge minutes off the bench with 14 points (on seven-for-seven shooting), seven rebounds and the only dunk of the night.
St. Joseph, a program that has dominated the GMC Tournament for a long time, won't be going to the championship game after winning the last four (and appearing in the last 12). South Brunswick, a program that struggled through a 1-18 season just two winters ago, will be going instead.
"We beat St. Joe's," Strickland said. "This is great. They've been on top for a whole decade. This feels real good."