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Rockets rolling; prep for play in conference, state sectional tournaments

STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
Raritan High School boys basketball player Lucas LaVilla leads the fast break during a game against Shore Regional on Feb. 4 in Hazlet. Raritan won 54-27.

HAZLET – The Raritan High School boys basketball team is creating a lot of buzz throughout the Shore Conference and in the A Central Division this winter.

The 2021-22 Rockets are off to the program’s best start in more than a decade. Raritan is 13-4 and the players are hoping to make a run at the Shore Conference Tournament title and at a state sectional tournament crown.

Coach Denis Caruano has been pleased with what his players have accomplished as they prepare to head into the homestretch of the regular season.

“I am really proud of how we have been clicking together and how everything has been going as we get closer to the playoffs,” he said. “It’s not just one guy carrying us. We have a collection of kids playing so well.”

The Rockets are 7-1 in their last eight games. Raritan held Shore Regional High School of West Long Branch to a season-low 27 points in a 54-27 victory over the Blue Devils on Feb. 4 in Hazlet.

Caruano is pleased with the contributions being made by his entire roster. Against Shore Regional, juniors Jack O’Leary and Billy Tigar were the top scorers for the Rockets.

O’Leary scored 17 points, including 11 in the second half. After scoring six points in the first quarter to help Raritan take a 14-7 lead, O’Leary was whistled for his second foul in the second quarter and sat out the rest of the half.

O’Leary came out ready to go in the third quarter with Raritan up 26-16. He led his team on a 10-0 run by scoring six points as the Rockets pushed the lead to 36-16.

As time was winding down in the third quarter, O’Leary saw his defender back off at the top of the key and he started to drive to the basket. He split two defenders and floated in a bucket just before the buzzer to give Raritan a 43-19 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

“It feels really good to get a good team win,” O’Leary said. “I had foul trouble early and wanted to get the team going in the second half. It worked out and we got a big win.”

O’Leary scored his final basket with 3:45 to play to extend the lead to 52-23. He is averaging just under 13 points per game.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” O’Leary said of his junior campaign. “I have been playing together with a lot of these guys for many years and I want to win with them. We are hoping for a great season.”

Tigar provided key minutes off the bench, especially when O’Leary was in foul trouble. He scored eight of his 13 points in the first half and finished with three three-point field goals.

The Rockets finished the game with seven three-point field goals.

Tigar’s season-high 13-point performance was an example of how the Rockets have had different players step up when called on to spark a victory. Caruano and the players trust anyone who steps on to the court.

“I know (Caruano) has a lot of trust in all of our players and that means a lot to us,” Tigar said. “I feel like at any given moment, anybody on our team can score 15 to 20 points a game. Once we put everything together, we are going to be tough to stop.”

Junior Justin Coleman hit two three-point field goals to contribute to the offense. Senior Justin Rivera scored nine points, including a layup as the second quarter ended to give the Rockets a 10-point lead.

Rivera hit another buzzer-beater for Raritan against the Ranney School on Feb. 5 and his basket decided the game.

With Raritan trailing 55-54 in the final seconds, Rivera drove to the basket and lofted up a layup that banked into the net as the buzzer sounded to lift the Rockets to a 56-55 victory. Rivera led the way with 21 points.

The victory over Ranney (12-3) was a big one for the Rockets, who have struggled against the elite teams in the Shore Conference despite their overall success this winter.

Caruano said he believed that hurdle was something the Rockets could overcome as they prepare to head into postseason play.

The victory over Ranney was a move in the right direction for the Rockets, who want to be championship contenders when tournament time arrives.

“As long as we keep worrying about our division and moving up in the standings for the state sectionals, I feel comfortable with where we are, considering the goals we had to begin the season,” the coach said.

Raritan will complete the regular season with three A Central games, starting with a home game against Holmdel High School on Feb. 8.

Raritan High School boys basketball player Jack O'Leary rises up over a Shore Regional defender for a layup during a game played on Feb. 4 in Hazlet. O'Leary scored a game-high 17 points in the contest.
Raritan High School boys basketball player Jason Trotta knocks in a free-throw attempt at the line during a game against Shore Regional on Feb. 4 in Hazlet. Raritan won 54-27.
Raritan High School boys basketball player Justin Rivera rises up from behind the arc during a game against Shore Regional on Feb. 4 in Hazlet. Raritan is currently 13-4 on the season.
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