Jennings, Cadets show their mettle
James Jennings doesn’t always receive the same type of fanfare as celebrated teammate Timajh Parker, a 6-foot-7 senior forward who will play at Division I Towson next year.
However, when it comes to performing in the clutch, Jennings is second to none.
Ridgefield kept Parker from dominating the paint with a lock-down performance on defense, getting to within 42-41 with five minutes left in the fourth quarter.
But Jennings scored seven straight points, including a rare four-point play, and the Cadets went on to post a 57-47 victory in front of an energetic Senior Night crowd at the Vito Montelli court.
Jennings, a senior point guard with a flair for the dramatic, scored on a traditional 3-point play after getting fouled on an acrobatic drive to the hoop to put the Cadets up 45-41 with 4:54 left. Just 25 seconds later, Jennings nailed his only 3-pointer of the game then converted on the ensuing free throw after getting fouled on the way up.
That made it 49-41 and the undefeated Cadets finished the game on a 15-5 run to blow open what had been an extremely competitive, back-and-forth defensive battle.
St. Joseph, the state’s top-ranked team which has already locked up the No. 1 seed for the FCIAC playoffs, improved to 19-0 overall and 17-0 in the conference heading into the season finale on Wednesday.
Jennings, who also helped St. Joseph escape an upset against Westhill with a game-winning shot in the final seconds earlier this month, finished with 15 points, a game-high seven assists and four rebounds.
“He’s just a tough kid,” St. Joseph head coach Vito Montelli said. “When it comes down to trying to put the game away, he wants to be the one with the ball in his hands.”
Seth von Kuhn scored a game-high 19 points with four 3-pointers to lead Ridgefield, which fell to 14-5 overall and 12-5 in the FCIAC with its third straight loss.
In a playoff-type atmosphere with both teams being fueled by large and vociferous student sections, Jennings knew it was his time to step up and keep the undefeated season alive.
“This is a big win for us,” Jennings said. “We knew they were going to come in here and be competitive. They had a big crowd and we had a big crowd. We just got the momentum going and we stepped up and got the win.”
Parker finished with just 15 points and eight rebounds against Ridgefield’s matchup-zone. Ridgefield senior forward John Heller did most of the work against Parker, who mustered just eight points and three rebounds in the first half. Parker typically has a double-double by the time he hits the locker room.
“I thought we did a great job against him,” said Ridgefield head coach Car Charles, who started out as an assistant under Montelli at St. Joseph. “We also did a nice job against Trinity’s big man and we’re certainly over-matched in that department. But the effort by our kids was fantastic.”
With Parker being held in check, St. Joseph turned to Jennings and sophomore guard Quincy McKnight to pick up the slack.
McKnight also enjoyed a solid all-around performance, scoring 15 points to go along with five rebounds, two blocks and three steals. Ridgefield took a 36-35 lead with an 8-0 run fueled by two straight 3-pointers by von Kuhn.
But McKnight responded with his only 3-pointer of the night to give St. Joseph a 37-36 lead heading into the fourth quarter and the Cadets never trailed again.
“I thought (Ridgefield) banged (Parker) pretty good. It was a good game plan,” Montelli said. “But we had a couple of other kids step up and that’s what you need to win games like this.”
Ridgefield had the game right where it wanted it in the fourth quarter. That is, until Jennings ended it with his personal 7-0 run. Before that, the biggest lead for either team was four points.
Ridgefield led 11-9 at the end of the first and St. Joseph led by just a point at the end of the second (24-23) and third (37-36).
“Jennings got down the lane and we were forced to help out and that leaves the perimeter open, and they hit some big 3’s on us to open it up,” Charles said. “He’s the quickest guard in the league. He’s got great moves. Just when you think you have him covered, he spins in the other direction and the next thing you know he’s going to the hoop. He’s just a great player.”
St. Joseph also played tit-for-tat with the Tigers with a solid man-to-man defense. Ridgefield found no room in the paint all night, getting most of its offense on 3-pointers or in transition off the play-making ability of junior guard Kurt Steidl (eight points, 11 rebounds, four assists).
“Our main focus is always defense,” Jennings said. “We knew we had to step up on defense, get some stops and keep the game right where it was.”
Ridgefield must defeat surging Westhill in the final game of the regular season to avoid going into the playoffs on a four-game losing streak. Either way, Charles believes his team did enough against the Cadets to wipe away the stain of consecutive losses against Staples (60-34) and Fairfield Ludlowe (47-45 in OT).
“I’m very proud of our effort. I thought we played championship basketball tonight,” Charles said. “We came up a little short, but one thing we can take out of tonight is the confidence that we can compete for an FCIAC championship or definitely be in the hunt.”