A state group championship bid was denied due to the world-wide virus.
But the South Brunswick High School boys’ basketball team can show off its state sectional hardware in the school’s trophy case.
South Brunswick won that New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s Central Jersey, Group 4 boys’ basketball tournament championship trophy when the Vikings pulled off a thrilling 72-71 victory in the sectional final against Marlboro High School on March 10 in Marlboro.
Yathmin Vemula’s stellar heroics in the finals seconds led to the presentation of the the state sectional trophy to South Brunswick.
Making big time plays throughout South Brunswick’s entire postseason run, the sophomore delivered another special moment to help bring home the program’s first state sectional title since the 2006-2007 season.
Off a great pass by Alex Strange, Vemula drove to the basket for a layup with one second left to send the fourth-seeded Vikings to the 72-71 victory over third-seeded Marlboro.
“This is what I dreamed of doing when I was a kid,” Vemula said. “It’s beautiful. It’s a great feeling to put your team on your back and hit those shots. Feels wonderful.”
Next up on the schedule for the Vikings was to be the Group 4 state semifinal against Atlantic City High School on March 12 at Egg Harbor Township High School. A victory would have resulted in an appearance in the Group 4 state title game on March 15 at Rutgers University in Piscataway.
But the NJSIAA, the governing body of scholastic sports in New Jersey, cancelled the remainder of the boys’ and girls’ basketball season on March 12 due to the coronavirus that has impacted the world.
That ruling by the NJSAIA ended the year for all teams that were seeking state group championships and then a title in the Tournament of Champions the following week.
South Brunswick almost never even made it out of Marlboro with a state sectional crown.
The Vikings had to claw back from being down 11 points midway through the third quarter, tying the game with 1:25 to go in the period after Justin Carbone connected on his third three-pointer of the night.
Carbone finished with a game-high 28 points in the victory.
South Brunswick took its first lead of the game in the final seconds of the third period when Devin Strickland showed relentless effort to get the offensive rebound and knock in the put back to give the Vikings a 53-52 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Strickland was a man on a mission all night for South Brunswick, finishing with a game-high 28 points. The senior hit for eight points in the final three minutes of the third quarter to help South Brunswick grab the lead.
“When the guys get confident and start playing fast, that’s when we’re at our best,” said South Brunswick coach Joe Hoehman. “We called a timeout late in the third quarter and told the guys that we’ve worked too hard to get here and give up. If we go down, we’re going down swinging. We got to fly around the court. We switched up the defense a little bit. That got us going and helped force a couple steals to get us going in transition.”
Marlboro answered right back with a 9-2 surge to begin the fourth quarter, and held a 64-57 lead with under five minutes to play after senior Alex Ratner’s three-point play.
South Brunswick roared back on a 11-3 effort to retake the lead with under a minute and a half to play, but a nice feed by Aleksy Friedman to Jay Ratner put the Mustangs up 69-68 with just 1:11 left to play.
Still down one with 37 seconds left to play, Strickland was fouled and sent to the free-throw line.
Coming up empty at the strike moments earlier, the senior redeemed himself by going a perfect two-of-two to put the Vikings up 70-69.
At the other end of the floor, South Brunswick forced two bad shots for Marlboro, but could not get the offensive rebound on either shot.
The last one proved costly as sophomore Jack Seidler was able to track down the loose ball for Marlboro and knocked in the bucket to give the Mustangs back the lead with 16 seconds to play.
South Brunswick brought the ball down the court right way to form up a play to get and a last second shot off for the win.
Moving the ball around of the half court, Strange threw a backdoor pass to a wide open Vemula underneath the basket, and the sophomore became a hero in South Brunswick history with his game-winning layup to make the Vikings champions again!
“It just came down to us making the right play,” Hoehman said. “We always talking about making the next pass. Not forcing it. The guys made the right play and it paid off. I’m elated with the accomplishment that we’ve made. I couldn’t be prouder of our guys.”
Vemula scored eight points in the victory. With the victory, South Brunswick improves to 25-5 on the season.
Friedman led Marlboro with 21 points in the contest, while Seidler finished with 18 points in the loss.
A team that just had one victory three years ago, South Brunswick has risen all the way up to the mountaintop and showed its doubters how good of a team they were this season.
“It feels surreal,” Strickland said. “I knew we had the talent to do it. We just put the work in. We knew all that hard work in the offseason and waking up at 6 AM was going to help us win a state championship.”
South Brunswick finished the season with a record of 25-5, marking the the first time in four years that the Vikings have recorded over 20 victories. It’s only the second time in 10 years that the Vikings have won over 20 games in a season.
Follow Steven Bassin on Twitter @SBassin_Sports