TOMS RIVER – Given the number of juniors and sophomores on the team and its No. 12 seed, it might have seemed as though last year’s Holmdel boys basketball team was a year early to reach the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals.
The Hornets players, though, believed they were right where they belonged, which is why losing a close game made for a tough pill to collectively swallow.
This year, with most of its team back, Holmdel showed, without a doubt, they once again belong at the table with the Shore Conference’s best.
The fourth-seeded Hornets shook off a poor start to Sunday’s game against No. 5 Wall and hammered the Crimson Knights the rest of the way in a 61-48 quarterfinal win. Holmdel clinches a spot in the SCT semifinals for the first time since 1999 and will play Shore Conference Class A Central division rival and top-seeded Manasquan for a third time.
“That loss last year definitely hurt,” junior forward Alex Baker said. “I remember standing in this locker room and hearing Freehold Township celebrating in the locker room next to us. We didn’t want to hear that again today. We wanted to be the ones celebrating.”
Baker and fellow junior forward Ryan Bradley led Sunday’s effort with a combined 30 points and 18 rebounds as Holmdel dominated the glass and overcame a cold-shooting game from the perimeter (1-for-15 from three-point range).
“Their guard play and team speed was a worry for us but we thought we could exploit our size down low,” Holmdel coach Sean Devaney said. “Wall is a really good team. We knew going in they were good and they were as good as advertised.”
Baker finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds while Bradley put up 13 points and seven boards off the bench.
“Rebounding is something that’s always a focus in practice and I think it’s gotten to the point we know it’s a strength of ours,” Baker said. “No matter how we are shooting the ball, we can always work hard on the glass and maybe get some second shots like we did today.”
Senior Doug Chan also chipped in 11 points while senior Eric Hinds pitched in eight in the win.
Bradley has now strung together back-to-back outings in which he has been a top scorer for the Hornets and has been a key addition to an already-experienced lineup after not seeing key varsity minutes last year.
“A lot of people ask who number 30 is,” Devaney said of Bradley. “He has really come on and people are starting to take notice of how he is playing. Over the last three weeks or so, he has really made a big impact as that other athlete with size we can put in there with Alex or to give Alex a break.”
Wall jumped on Holmdel in the opening minutes, grabbing an 11-1 lead within the first four minutes of the game. The Hornets, however, responded with 14 unanswered points, 12 of which came before the end of the first quarter to give Holmdel a 13-11 lead after one.
Holmdel never trailed again but also never led by more than eight points during the second and third quarters, with Wall remaining within striking distance at 38-32 heading to the fourth.
A three-pointer by senior Quinn Calabrese cut Holmdel’s lead to 47-41 but Holmdel wore down the Crimson Knights with a 14-4 run before a Nick De La Cruz three for Wall capped the scoring in the final seconds.
“It always seems like the second half has been a little better for us,” Devaney said. “We really tried to extend our defense a little bit and we hoped that maybe by the fourth quarter, that helps us.”
Calabrese, senior Mike Caputo and junior Pat Lacey each scored 11 points to lead Wall.
Holmdel’s poor start to Sunday’s game was reminiscent of its quarterfinal game vs. Freehold Township last year, in which the Hornets fell into a double-digit hole early and clawed back in the second half. Last year, it proved to be too little too late when Holmdel missed a trio of potential game-tying shots on its last possession.
“I really admire these guys because they really just look at everything game-to-game,” Devaney said. “I don’t think there is any question that we wanted to go father this season than we did last year, but there is no talk about winning this tournament game, or getting to the semis or whatever it is. The focus is always on the next game and on the preparation for the next game.”
This time around, Holmdel started its comeback earlier and with more force, erasing a 10-point deficit in fewer than three minutes.
Holmdel’s last foray into the SCT semifinal round came during a golden age of Holmdel basketball that included back-to-back NJSIAA Group II championships – the second of which the Hornets won after losing to Christian Brothers Academy in the 1999 semifinal. This year’s Holmdel team not only face what could amount to an even greater challenge in the SCT in top-seeded Manasquan, but will also have to go through the Warriors to win the Central Jersey Group II championship.
“They are that good,” Devaney said of Manasquan. “Our goal at this point is to play well. At this point, after 23 games, you’re probably not going to change all that much. We just have to come out and play as well as we can.”
If the last meeting between the teams in any indication, Holmdel can give the Warriors a serious challenge. Manasquan survived, 46-40, in Holmdel, with the Hornets missing a chance to tie the game with 20 seconds left.
If Holmdel can get over the hump against its division rival on the third try, it will reach the SCT final for the first time in program history.
“This has been our goal the entire season,” Chan said. “Get deep into the Shore Conference Tournament and after that, deep into the states. Once we’re there, we want to win.”
“You’ve got to believe you can win,” Baker said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, we believe we can win and that’s how we’re going to go into every game the rest of the season.”