By Jimmy Allinder
South River High School girls basketball coach Mike Feaster watched with pensive eyes as Middlesex High School labored against an obviously superior East Brunswick High School in a recent Greater Middlesex Conference (GMC) Tournament game.
The scene was similar to how his team was soundly beaten by Piscataway Township High School, 71-39, in a first-round game a few days earlier. Middlesex went on to lose to the Bears, 64-39, proving once again the disparity that exists between large- and small-school basketball, especially when they meet in the GMC Tournament.
However, in the world of Group I basketball, South River and Middlesex are top dogs and likely to meet in the NJSIAA Central Jersey sectional semifinals — something East Brunswick and Piscataway can only hope for in highly competitive Central Jersey Group IV.
South River (20-4) will be the top seed when the tournament begins Feb. 29 — a tremendous advantage since the Rams, as long as they remain alive, own home-court advantage. Feaster knows how important it is to play in front of a home crowd since South River parlayed that advantage a year ago to win the title. The Rams and Blue Jays did not meet in the regular season, so the coach was calculating how to come up with a game plan that will stop Middlesex. He admitted the most likely scenario will be employing offensive sets that feature his two best scorers: Gabrielle Harris and Aleah Bass.
Harris is a given. The senior averages 20 points, is a superb passer and defender and is by far the team’s best all-around player. Bass’ strength is in the pivot, where her height at 6 feet 1 inch tall has enabled the junior to score 14.8 points a game.
What isn’t certain is how the rest of the lineup will perform in the states. Games Feb. 23 and 25 against Group IV opponents J.P. Stevens High School and Edison High School, respectively, provided Feaster with a litmus test that will determine his team’s readiness.
“Gabrielle is an outstanding player and is hard to stop,” Feaster said. “Aleah is great on the boards and she can score, too. But the others will have to step up, too. We have a freshman (Tara Beachem) at guard who has sometimes played well and in other games has looked like a freshman. But right now, Tara doesn’t have any more time to be a freshman.”
Feaster has preached those words to his young player in recent weeks knowing she will respond to his frequent admonitions or succumb to the pressure of the one-and-done basketball that has turned even seasoned veterans into fragile bundles of nerves.
Others like Mackenzie Garrick and Victoria Gil also need to beckon the call when the switch turns on the bright lights of the state tournament.
“I’ve seen glimpses of what we can do when we’re playing well,” Feaster said. “We need to be more consistent. We can’t have a quarter when we score 18 points followed by another when we score four. It all has to come together for us to win.”
Top-seeded Monroe Township High School (22-2) and second-seeded East Brunswick (19-3) clashed Feb. 25 for the GMC Tournament championship in what could be the first of two meetings. In the semifinals Feb. 22, the Falcons defeated fourth–seeded South Brunswick High School, 56-48, while the Bears slipped past sixth-seeded Bishop George Ahr High School, 44-40.
East Brunswick and Monroe Township are the first- and second-seeded teams, respectively, in Central Jersey Group IV and play first-round games March 1. The Bears host Old Bridge High School (16th seed), while the Falcons entertain 15th-seeded Princeton High School.
In Central Jersey Group II, Spotswood High School (8-15) received the 16th seed and meets New Providence High School (top seed) March 1.
In the boys tournament, sixth-seeded East Brunswick (17-7) entertained 11th-seeded Middletown High School North March 1 in a Central Jersey Group IV contest. In Central Jersey Group II, eighth-seeded Spotswood (20-5) hosts ninth-seeded Delran High School March 1, and second-seeded South River (15-9) hosts 15th-seeded Academy Charter High School Feb. 29 in Central Jersey Group I.