The calendar says the New Jersey state basketball tournament won’t culminate until March 19 at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J.
But for all intents and purposes, the state championship will take place Friday night sometime after 8 p.m. at the Prudential Center in Newark.
Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley and St. Anthony (18-0) will carry an 83-game winning streak dating to March 2010 into a showdown with St. Benedict’s Prep (18-1), which had also been unbeaten before stumbling Wednesday night at Blair.
The two teams cannot meet in the state tournament because St. Benedict’s is not a full member of the state association and plays a national schedule as a result. While St. Anthony’s season has culminated the last two seasons — and 12 times overall — with a Tournament of Champions crown, St. Benedict’s is looking ahead to the ESPN National High School Championship in April.
“This is the game for the bragging rights of the state of New Jersey, really,” St. Ben’s coach Mark Taylor told SNY.tv Thursday. “This is probably the two best teams in the state overall and look, everybody wants to say they’re the best team in the state so this is the game that probably will dictate that.”
St. Anthony, which over the weekend won the SNY Invitational, is ranked No. 6 nationally by ESPN.com, while St. Benedict’s was No. 9 before the Blair game.
Together, the two teams feature seven players committed to Division 1 programs.
Everyone had hoped the two programs would be unbeaten coming into this game, but Taylor’s team stumbled at Blair, perhaps looking ahead to the Friars.
“You know what, it’s a long year,” Taylor said. “I tell the kids, you can’t have too many highs, you can’t have too many lows. The great thing is, when you have a bad night, you get to play again two nights later. But at the end of the day, you never want to lose. But this could be a positive long-term if we grow from it.”
Taylor said two of his key players, junior guards Jonathan Williams and Jordan Forehand, were injured and might not play.
For many years, St. Anthony and St. Benedict’s never played because Chris Hurley, Bob’s wife and the official St. Anthony scorekeeper, did not want her husband coaching against her son, former St. Benedict’s coach Dan Hurley, now the head coach at Rhode Island.
But a year ago, the two teams met for the first time in more than a decade during Taylor’s first season in Newark. Both teams were unbeaten heading into a January showdown in Hackensack. Led by point guard Tyler Ennis, who has since signed with Syracuse, St. Benedict’s led by eight points in the third period, but ultimately lost, 51-50.
St. Anthony’s win in that game and the next month against Andrew Wiggins and Huntington (W.V.) Prep in the PrimeTime Shootout at Roselle Catholic helped Hurley’s team remain undefeated across two seasons during which Kyle Anderson was on the team.
Anderson finished up 65-0 in two years at St. Anthony, and the current team — led by Temple-bound point guard Josh Brown (featured here) — has won its first 18 games this year.
Now the teams will tangle again.
“Yeah, I’m definitely looking forward to it,” St. Anthony senior guard Hallice Cooke, the MVP of the SNY Invitational, told SNY.tv. “It’s going to be a packed crowd and they’re a great team so it’s going to be an exciting game.”
Under Hurley, St. Anthony has won 27 state championships and 12 T of C titles. Hurley’s goal, first and foremost, will always be preparing for — and ultimately winning — the state tournament.
Even if St. Anthony loses this game, that will never change.
Two years ago, St. Patrick and St. Anthony were ranked first and second nationally and also happened to play in the New Jersey state tournament in what was called the mythical national championship played before more than 8,000 fans at Rutgers. St. Anthony won the game, spoiling the “Prayer for a Perfect Season” of then-St. Pat’s coach Kevin Boyle and his star, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, that was captured in an HBO documentary.
There will probably never be another New Jersey game of that magnitude — and this one certainly isn’t.
“It’s different because this one here it doesn’t have that much on the line,” said Cooke, a sophomore in that 2011 game. “It’s going to be another game, it’s not 1 and 2. It’s not going on to the state championship [if you win].
“It’s a regular game for us to get better. And we can do is play our hardest and see what the results come.”
Told that St. Benedict’s sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe had guaranteed a victory to USA Today, Cooke didn’t flinch.
“They could talk,” he said. “He’s a confident kid. I know Briscoe.
“I don’t pay any mind to that. I’m just focused on what I have to do and what my team has to do. When we’re on the court, we’ll see what everything’s about.”