After patiently answering several questions, the 7-foot-1 Kentucky signee talked joyously about how he wanted to finish up the press conference so he could take the trophy to dinner.
One year after coming up short in the New Jersey Tournament of Champions final against Roselle Catholic, Towns and Vanderbilt commit Wade Baldwin finally enjoyed sweet redemption.
But it didn’t come easy.
After building a 17-point-lead against Newark East Side in the first half, St. Joe’s-Metuchen almost frittered away the advantage in the final minutes before holding on for a 49-47 victory to win the school’s first TOC title before nearly 5,000 fans.
“Day One [Coach Dave Turco] said, ‘It’s TOC or bust,’” the 6-foot-3 Baldwin said. “So it was there from the get-go. It was a failed season if we didn’t win and it came down and we did win it.”
After St. Joe’s led by as many as 17 points in the first half, East Side roared back, using an 11-1 run to close within 28-21 at the half.
East Side then took the lead at 47-46 in the fourth quarter on a 3-pointer by Jamar Gilbert.
The Kentucky-bound Towns altered a shot under the East Side basket by Seton Hall commit Ismael Sanogo and wrestled away the defensive rebound. It proved to be a critical play.
With 14.7 seconds left, Townes made 1-of-2 to extend the lead to 49-47.
After a timeout, East Side had one more chance but Akbar Hoffman missed an off-balance 3-pointer as time expired.
Towns finished with eight points, nine rebounds and three blocks and the 6-3 Baldwin tallied 12 points with Vandy head coach Kevin Stallings and assistant Yanni Hufnagel sitting courtside.
After the victory, Towns sounded like a man who had lifted a huge weight off his shoulders.
“I’m just feeling real glad right now that we were able to accomplish something so big and so meaningful,” he said. “When I came to [Coach] Turco as a freshman, I always told him that my plan was not to only win multiple state titles, but to win the TOC and I’m glad that I was able to fulfill my promise because Turco always believed that I was able to fulfill my promises so I’m glad that I was able to fulfill this one and leave my career on top and have Turco have our group finish on top for him.
“I’m glad that he can go home, he can get in his bed and know that he’s a TOC champion. He’s a coach to go down in history.”
Turco, in turn, called Towns’ defensive rebound in the final seconds when East Side had two chances to score “huge.”
“I tell people all the time, I’m very blessed to be able to walk with a kid who’s 7-foot-1 McDonald’s All-American, going to Kentucky, and he delivered,” Turco said.
“He makes a defensive play,he gets the big rebound. Today we had to tread some water with him on the bench, some guys stepped up, but obviously when he’s on the floor we’re a better team.. It was very fitting for him to sort of cap his career. It might’ve not been a big basket but it was a huge defensive stop and a huge rebound and definitely one of the main reasons we won tonight.”
Asked what he wanted his legacy at St. Joe’s to be 20 years from now, Towns went third-person for a bit.
“I just want them to know that Karl Towns worked hard every day to make sure that he could do something special,” he said. “Karl Towns didn’t just do it by himself. He had a big team part of him. He had not the Big Three as everyone says, he he had a Big Five. I want people when they look 20, 40 years down the road when we’re all old and coming back to school and can’t hear in one ear, that they know that this is the model of success. This team is a model of success.”
This game was framed as a matchup of the “all-star” parochial school of St. Joe’s against the homegrown public school of East Side.
The last public school to win the TOC was DaJuan Wagner and Camden in 2000, while parochial schools have dominated the event. Bob Hurley’s St. Anthony program (12) and Kevin Boyle’s old St. Patrick’s team (5) have combined to win 17 of the 26 TOCs since 1989.
After winning three straight Non-Public A titles, Towns finished his high school career by winning New Jersey’s ultimate game.
He will finish his high school career by playing in the McDonald’s All-American and Jordan Brand Classic games next month.
Towns is part of a four man Kentucky class that includes Tyler Ulis, shooting guard Devin Booker and power forward Trey Lyles.
Kentucky meets arch-rival Louisville in the Sweet 16 on Thursday in Indianapolis, a game all the recruits are sure to be watching.
“It’s March Madness,” Towns said. “Anything’s possible.”
Photos: Saed Hindash/The Star-Ledger