By Dan Collins--Stories and Photos courtesy of Tapintoclark.com
CLARK, NJ- It’s been 36 years since the No. 3 seeded Arthur L. Johnson High School Crusaders boys’ varsity basketball team advanced to the state semifinals, but with a 69-58 win over the No. 6 seeded Lincoln Lions Wednesday night in Clark, they secured a berth in the NJSIAA Central, Group 2 Semifinals.
“It was just a complete team effort,” Johnson head coach Dave Kennedy said. “We had contributions from everybody on both ends of the floor and that’s what gave us an opportunity to win tonight.”
With the gym packed and full of fans fired up for the contest, the Crusaders battled the Lions for the first eight minutes of the game, holding a 12-8 lead. Junior George Visconti added five points for his team in the effort.
The second quarter showed the Crusaders exploding on their offensive game, outscoring the Lions 22-14. Trailing 22-20 with 3:02 left in the first half, the Crusaders would make the Lions pay. They went on a 14-0 scoring run to take a 34-22 lead into halftime, leaving the crowd energized and the gym loud.
Junior Joe DiProfio scored 11 points for the Crusaders in that run, while sophomore Brenden Kelly (11 points on the night) scored five points within that run, opening the game up early for their team.
As the second half started, the Crusaders continued to dominate the Lions on their home court. They built a lead as high as 44-30 with 2:57 left in the third quarter, with all the players contributing. Visconti added five more points in that quarter, while senior Brendan Stanzione added two key baskets to make the lead 48-36 heading into the fourth quarter.
Lincoln wouldn’t go down without a fight and would cut into the Johnson lead as the final eight minutes rolled along. The teams would battle for the first three full minutes, with the Crusaders leading 54-43. The teams continued the early tug-of-war, each team continuing to drain baskets on both sides.
Sophomore Brandon Hund drained two straight baskets, the second one being a three-pointer, to make it 63-51 Johnson with three minutes to go. He finished with 13 points for the Crusaders on the night.
The Crusaders faced a challenge late in the fourth quarter when leading scorer Visconti fouled out with 2:31 left on the clock. Lincoln aimed to cut into Johnson's lead, but only got as close as 63-56 with 1:44 left. The Crusaders defense closed the door on the Lions’ season.
“It’s a great feeling,” DiProfio said. “Especially with George [fouling out], we were able to secure the rebounds and keep them off the glass. The key to the game was keeping them off the glass, keeping them from the second chance points."
Visconti finished the night with 18 points.
“We just play hard, we played defense and ultimately, we just played together,” Visconti said. “We’re going to face adversity on the court and off the court, but as long as we handle it together as a unit, we’re going to have success. I had all the confidence in the world in my guys. I know how hard they work, so I know even though I fouled out on some iffy calls, I knew my guys were going to get it done.”
Seniors Ray Williamson and Brendan Stanzione, who were part of the program in the tougher years, expressed excitement for the team on advancing and says they did all the right things to stop Lincoln throughout the game.
“Just the momentum of these two great wins at home and staying together [were the keys to getting the job done tonight],” Williamson said.
“It’s amazing,” Stanzione said. “I’ve waited four years for this, we’re playing great basketball with this team, we just brought down a tough Lincoln team and I’m pumped.”
“We’re sharing the ball and the fans are supporting us like crazy, I just think we’re playing great basketball,” he added.
The free throws were crucial for the Crusaders, as they drained 14 of them to stabilize their lead throughout the game.
The storyline for the Lincoln Lions was their sloppiness earlier on. They committed turnovers at crucial points and missed 15 from the free throw line.
For Lincoln, sophomore Dante Darby led his team with 20 points in the loss, while senior Najuan Jenkins added 17 points for his team. Senior Tariq Royster added 15 points for the Lions on the night.
The Johnson Crusaders (21-4) advance to the NJSIAA Central, Group 2 Semifinals, where they will face off at No. 2 seeded Bordentown HS Friday night at 7:00 p.m.
“We just need to share the ball, make our shots, be solid, be ourselves and we’re good,” Stanzione added.
The Lincoln Lions finish their 2016-17 season with a 16-11 record.