Nottingham’s Ku’Jane Johnson goes up for the layup over a Haddonfield defender for 2 of his career high of 16 points. Photo by Michael A. Sabo
By Rich Fisher
Mar. 13: Chris “The Baron” Raba won’t take no for an answer.
He is declaring that his Nottingham boys’ basketball team is now the greatest in Colonial Valley Conference history; and the numbers make it hard to argue with him.
By winning tonight’s NJSIAA Tournament of Champions first-round game, 64-52, over 5th-seeded Haddonfield at Toms River’s RWJ Barnabas Health Center, Raba’s 4th-seeded Northstars (30-2) did the following:
–Became the first CVC boys team to win 30 games
–Became the first Mercer County boys team to win a TOC game since Trenton Catholic in 2010
–Became the first CVC public school team to EVER win a TOC game; and the only other CVC team to do it since McCorristin beat Hillside in 1990.
“I challenged them,” Raba said. “I said ‘If we win tonight, we will go down as the best CVC team of all-time.’ I don’t think it can be argued. No one’s ever had 30 wins before.”
The closest was Trey Lowe’s 2015 Ewing team, which went 29-3 but lost to Bergenfield in the Group III finals.
If other teams want to argue about who is “the greatest” they can have at it. But there is no denying the 2017-18 Northstars are the winningest of all time, as their resume just keeps growing.
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“I’m real excited,” said a stoic Darell Johnson, whose expression defied excitement despite another stellar game in which he had 15 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 blocked shots. “I may not seem it, but on the inside, I’m just happy that we could say we made history. We came from the bottom all the way to the top now.”
As a reward, they get to play the number one team in the state, as top-seeded Roselle Catholic is Thursday’s semifinal opponent at 7:30 in Toms River. It will be the first time Nottingham will be an underdog this year.
“By a lot!” Raba said with a laugh. “They’ve got eight D-1 guys. They’ve got guys from all over the country, I’ve got guys from one little block in Bromley. I’m just gonna tell these guys ‘You’re the best CVC team in history, let’s come to play on Thursday. We’ve got nothing to lose.’”
Nottingham reached the semifinals with what has become their usual formula the past three games – get a lead, allow a comeback, then hit a switch when things get close and pull away.
“I’m not gonna say something clicks,” Johnson said. “But we know good teams are gonna go on runs. When they go on a run, we just stay composed, stay calm and just keep running our offense and try to get stops.”
That’s exactly what happened against the Bulldawgs, who were the fourth straight opponent that tried to win with scrappiness and precision against the more athletic Northstars.
Nottingham led through the first three quarters, at one point going up 40-30 behind an explosion by Ku’Jane Johnson, of all people. With a scoring average of 3.7 per game, Johnson registered the first double-digit game of his career with 16 points to go along with six rebounds. Johnson shot 8-for-11 as his teammates continued to find him wide open underneath for easy lay-ups.
“The coaches told me before the game that this could be the last game, so I went out there to give it all I got so we could keep moving forward,” Johnson said. “After I made the second lay-up I was feeling it, I had to keep moving.”
Asked how it felt to be the focal point of the offense, Johnson said, “It felt real good. . . I don’t know what happened tonight.”
What happened was teammates like Darell Johnson and Cliff Joseph being able to find their big man from all areas of the court.
“I was really impressed with the passes our guys threw to him,” Raba said.
“We told Ku’Jane at the beginning of the season he was going to be the X-Factor,” Darell Johnson said. “All he had to do was just catch the ball and we’ll put him in position to score. Today he was feeling good, he was catching the ball and making all his lay-ups. He had a good game.”
Even after all of KJ’s strong work, Haddonfield (29-4) still battled back. The ‘Dawgs cut the deficit to 48-44 after three quarters and scored the first six points of the fourth quarte take a 50-48 lead. Many teams might fall apart after that, but Nottingham has something in its DNA that just makes it stronger.
Richie Jones (17 points) and Kostro Montina (7 points, 8 rebounds) hit consecutive 3-pointers to start the Northstars on a game-clinching, 11-0 run. Joseph finished with another nice all-around game with 7 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and 2 blocked shots.
“This may have been Cliff Joseph’s best defensive game of his career,” Raba said. “The altered shots, the blocked shots, the steals, the deflections. He’s played a ton of games, but this may be his best game defensively. It was a total team effort just to stop their offense.”
Haddonfield is a team that can shoot 3-pointers and make backdoor lay-ups. It shot 6-for-25 from behind the arc and did not have one clean backdoor opportunity.
“Coach (Paul) Weidman is one of the best coaches in South Jersey, and that backdoor is hard to guard,” Raba said. “We practiced it but stuff like that you need more than one day to prepare for.”
Which is why Raba did not have a good feeling before the game, as he told a few friends he felt his team wasn’t feeling it and could be in for a long night.
“Our goal at the start of the season was to be state champs,” Raba said. “Once you complete that goal, is there anything left? I just didn’t want them to settle. They told me they won’t disappoint me.”
And no matter what happens on Thursday against a state powerhouse, Raba will not be disappointed. Win or lose, it’s a great stage for the Northstars to be on.
“It’s really exciting, playing a top team in the state and in the country, we get to show what we’re really about,” Darell Johnson said. “Of course I hope to win, but it’s just real good to be playing. Me and my boys are gonna come here, play hard, give it all we got and see what the outcome is.”