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Boys basketball: Eagle “W” is big playoff prep


South Hunterdon had a season first last Wednesday.

Their 54-45 triumph over Stem Civics meant the Eagles won their second straight close game.

“It’s going to push us to be better when we go back to playing them in the state tournament,” said point guard Logan Conner.

The Eagles, in a statistical quirk, played just five games decided by single digits: they are 5-0 in those contests and have a 12-point average victory margin in their wins. On the flip side, each loss has been double digit.

Pulling out tight matches becomes critical as playoffs loom. Behind Drew Zalescik’s 20, South Hunterdon overcame a slow start to top North Warren 40-36 on Feb. 11.

“It was definitely our passing,” Ian Sanders credited. “We passed and drove, which opened up a lot of shots.”

Last Wednesday’s Stem Civics “W” gave the Eagles more experience in pulling out tough games, and prepped the No. 9 seed for their Group 1 regional first round match on Feb. 26 – at No. 8 Stem Civics.

“It’s an interesting dynamic that we had them on our schedule and luck of the draw, we get them again,” noted Eagle head coach Jason Miller.

“We both know what to expect and we’ll see what we adjust.”

South Hunterdon’s defense suffocated the Purple Lightning, holding them to just two floor baskets in the game’s first 7:15.

“We came out with a lot of energy,” Sanders stated, “which helped us a lot on the defensive end. On the offensive end, we got better throughout the game.”

The Eagles led 12-7 at the first quarter’s end and extended the margin to 22-11 with 4:45 remaining. Zalescik’s coast-to-coast layup started five straight post buckets.

“Coach always tells us to attack the paint and be strong,” relayed Jeff Shurts, whose 17 points paced the Eagles. “We did that and got a bunch of layups. It really helped us.

“When you drive in and press the paint, we’re wide open to take outside shots,” Shurts added.

Conner fed Cooper McCaffrey and Shurts for threes to close the half; South Hunterdon led 28-18 at the break and 41-31 through three. Conner had success driving and kicking in the second half.

“They were opening up the paint and playing out,” Conner described. “I beat my defender and got to the point. When they stepped out, I’d kick it out and get a shot.”

A Purple Lightning putback cut the lead to 49-42 with 2:30 remaining, but the Eagles held stout. Sanders scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Conner tallied 11 points and four assists. Zalescik, the team’s leading scorer this season, had seven boards and three dimes.

The Eagles lost starting forward Reggie Smith in mid-January, yet South Hunterdon’s depth absorbed the loss. Reserves McCaffery, Johnny Ludwig and Jaden Jesse provided quality defense and minutes.

“Reggie is a dynamic athlete for us,” Miller said. “We’ve had to call more sets on offense. He was a big part for us with rebounding. But I love seeing Cooper, Jaden and Johnny come in and make plays. Jaden is a never quit kid.”

Bigs Zaire Beal and Matthew Mokko had 26 of Stem Civics’ (8-15) points. Countering their inside presence is one adjustment for South Hunterdon. But last Wednesday’s match showed the Eagles – who were 13-10 (6-2 Skylands) at presstime – have the formula to make a run in sectionals.