Newark University's Keith Foster still cringes thinking about how it felt when he cracked a couple ribs and five bones in his face when he was undercut going up for a dunk in a game Dec. 27 in the Newark Public Schools Tournament.
That hurt, but still not as much, he says, as the stunning loss University suffered to Montclair Kimberley last February in the first round of the Essex County Tournament. The Phoenix had claimed the previous two county (and state Group 1) championships and felt as they were capable of making a serious bid for a third straight.
"It was horrible last year. That hurt so much," Foster said. "Coming off a year where we won the states and the county, that was bad, it was humbling. We knew right then we had to gear up and get ready for next year."
That gearing, though, was not going to be easy with Foster and senior guard Morgan Dixon being the only true regulars back from that 20-7 team of 2010-11 and with University moving up from the Liberty Division in the Super Essex Conference to the grueling American.
Three senior starters graduated and sophomore forward Tim Coleman transferred to St. Anthony, meaning the Phoenix would be much smaller and less experienced than it had been for three seasons. Things got further complicated when Foster was injured on that fall.
"That was devastating," he said. "Just knowing I couldn't play with my boys killed me. I was a captain. I was supposed to step up and lead this team."
Foster was originally told he would likely miss two to three months, but was cleared to play after only three weeks. The 6-3 senior savors every moment he has on the court now, and University is clearly relishing its final weeks with its veteran backcourt man.
Foster scored a team-high 15 points and junior guard Akrum Wadley netted 13 Saturday afternoon to power seventh-seeded University (13-10) to a 61-52 victory over third-seeded Bloomfield. The Phoenix reached that game by upsetting second-seeded Newark Tech in overtime, 60-59, in the quarterfinals one week earlier behind the clutch efforts of Elijah Brown (22 points), Wadley (12) and Foster, who netted 10 points and provided the game-winning point on a free throw with 9.8 seconds remaining.
University fell in overtime to East Orange Campus, 68-67, three days after the win over Newark Tech for its fifth loss in nine games, but retooled in time to shock Bloomfield and reserve a spot for its third title game in four years.
"I love playing in the big games and I want to keep doing it," Brown said. "We've had ups and downs this season, but we keep our composure in the big games and we keep pushing. We don't take our foot off the gas."
University set its big-game pattern in December, when it began the season at 0-3 before snapping the slump with a 63-45 win over Montclair. The Phoenix then won their next three games to claim the Newark Public Schools Tournament title, but lost the next two regular-season games. One was against an East Side team they had defeated in the semifinals of the NPST.
"In the big games we just play together like we're brothers," Foster said. "All is good on the court and we do what we've got to do to win."
Often that means receiving outside shots or dribble penetration from Foster early in the game, so he can open the middle just a bit for 6-4 Kendall Henry and Chiemeka Akawaku. University consistently faces bigger teams on its American Division schedule, so must stretch those opponents out any way it can.
Bloomfield is not a big team, either, but Foster helped stretch the Bengals out, all the same. He drained two 3-pointers and two transition layups in the first quarter and knocked down another trey and a driving layup in the second to net all of his 15 points and help the Phoenix move in front, 37-21.
"I was hot in the first half, but as the game settled in I had to play a different role," Foster said. "It was time for me to get other people the ball."
Foster might have heaved some shots anyhow if put in the same position as a junior. With Bloomfield making it a point to deny Foster more assertively in the second half, he simply decided to stop making points. Foster attempted only one shot in the second half while Wadley (nine) and Brown (six) stepped forward to spark the offense.
"More is expected of me now that I'm a senior, so I have to play smart," Foster said. "You're not smart if you're shooting when you're not open and not getting teammates involved."
The 6-0 Brown played a strong overall game for the Phoenix with 10 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and three steals. Seven of those boards and five assists came in the first half as University took control of the glass and the tempo.
Bloomfield had fallen behind, 14-0, in the first quarter last week against Irvington, but rallied for a 57-55 win in the quarterfinals. If the Bengals could do that, they sure weren't going to be overwhelmed by a 16-point deficit at the half, and Bloomfield knew it.
"We were well aware of what they did last week, so we just had to keep the lead," Wadley said. "The first five minutes of the second half was important. We had to come out, keeping playing hard and stick to the game plan."
Bloomfield (17-5) showed that old spunk with an 8-2 run to start the third quarter, but University answered with five straight for a 44-29 lead with 2:29 to go in the third. That was a little beyond that five-minute mark, yet enough to keep Bloomfield at a safe distance.
These championship games are new experiences for many of the University players, like talented sophomore forward Jerrell Murray, but they are familiar settings for Foster.
Not only was he a regular contributor off the bench to the great success of two years ago, Foster also led Weequahic (University has no team) to the North Jersey, Section 2, Group 1 football final last December against Cedar Grove, which won, 34-21. Foster is a talented wide receiver recently selected to play in the New Jersey North-South All-Star Game in June.
"My sophomore year, I played a minor role, so I could play under the radar," Foster said. "I'm a senior now and I have experience. We're small, so I know we outhustle everybody. We have to box out, play with heart and just let the chips fall where they may."
Mike Kinney covers boys basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKinneyHS