TOMS RIVER, NJ - Verona spent three quarters neutralizing the reputed strengths of its heavily favored opponent Don Bosco Prep in the opening round of the NJSIAA boys basketball Tournament of Champions.
The Hillbillies, in fact, stood better than toe to toe with their bigger Bergen County foes, leading by four points late in the third quarter before the Ironmen took control down the stretch and averted a major upset with a 61-51 victory over Verona Friday night at the Pine Belt Arena.
Don Bosco was the state Non-Public A champion. Verona was the Group 1 champion.
When once-beaten Don Bosco Prep finally did pull ahead for good in the middle stages of the final quarter, it was hardly a case of Goliath running cowering David off the floor. In fact, it was more just a matter of the Ironmen--whose foul shots in the first half had been clanging off the iron--establishing their touch at the foul line and beating the Hillbillies with free throws.
Dominant Don Bosco big man Marcellus Earlington, a nationally recruited 6-foot-5 defensive end in football, finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds, but he had just three points in the second half, when Verona's strategy of fronting and doubling him in the post started to pay dividends. Earlington was also in foul trouble in the second half.
Senior forward Travis Jocelyn led Verona (26-7) with 17 points. Seniors Zack Zaccone and Jack Farrell each scored 11 points for the Hillbillies, who shook off an early 12-5 deficit with smart, patient execution and a gritty fearlessness evidenced by their willingness to step in and take charges on defense, and to run their offense and drive the lane when they had the ball.
"They knew they belonged," Verona head coach Eric McElroy said of his team. "This group hasn't been scared of anybody in four years. They just come out and try to rip your throats out."
Both teams made the long trek down the Garden State Parkway from North Jersey, but any thoughts that Don Bosco would have an EZ Pass into the tournament semifinals were quickly dismissed as Verona forged a 27-27 halftime tie with some crisp and mistake-free play in the second quarter, as they victimized Don Bosco several times with perfectly run backdoor plays, which usually involved Joe Zecchino on one end or the other.
Farrell scored nine of his 11 points in the first half, which concluded with Verona's fans giving the Hillbillies a standing ovation as they headed to the locker room.
"We've got little kids talking about us in school, bringing signs to games and cheering for us," said Farrell, who led Verona with four assists. "We want to inspire the younger generation to keep this going (at Verona) now."
The game was deadlocked three times in a taut third quarter before Verona pulled ahead, 39-35, with a minute left after a pair of driving baskets by Zack Zaccone, who also stepped in to accept a key charging foul on defense during that late third-quarter sequence.
"We did a real good job executing our game plan," said McElroy, who pointed to a very challenging regular-season schedule atypical of many Group 1 teams for helping prepare the Hillbillies for post-season play. Verona defeated formidable Group 4 teams such as Millburn, twice, and Bloomfield, in addition to playing a number of other Group 4 teams during the season.
"We played Group 4 teams throughout our whole conference," Farrell said. "This was the culmination of that and of playing Essex County basketball and Group 4 teams, which gave us the ability to compete against bigger schools."
The game was tied for the last time, 41-41, after Jocelyn sank two foul shots with 6:06 left. Don Bosco sank 19 of 24 free throws in the fourth quarter.