One year ago in the opening round of the Tournament of Champions, Asbury Park served as a pseudo practice squad that helped Plainfield warm up for its eventual run that opened eyes everywhere in the Garden State.
The on-the-rise Cardinals stomped the Blue Bishops, 68-35, before cruising in the following contest and then valiantly falling to mighty St. Anthony in the championship game. At the time, it was a foregone conclusion Asbury Park would never forget that dismal feeling.
Well, the Group 1 champions got the coveted chance for some payback, and they made the most of it – even in losing once again. Asbury Park bowed out of the Tournament of Champions last night against Plainfield, 68-53, in a game where the score wasn’t indicative of the play.
The scorebook said the Cardinals are allowed to play in Friday’s semifinal against St. Joseph (Met.), but fans saw the underdog out-hustle, out-muscle and, at times, out-run its far superior opponent.
For Asbury Park, which captured yet another sectional crown just days ago, reaching those three accomplishments inside a loss count as victories.
“Coming in, we knew this would be a game where we’d have to deal with their size and athleticism,” said Armond Conover, who led his team with 18 points. “We tried to play with confidence. Looking back at last year and how that turned out, we played our A-game tonight.”
Plainfield came out flat and was a victim of the Blue Bishops’ overwhelming defensive pressure and surprising ability to keep up with a lightning-quick pace up and down the floor. It’s not every day the Cardinals get a taste of their own medicine.
Before a raucous crowd inside the jam-packed Pine Belt Arena, Asbury Park raced out to an 11-point lead in the first quarter and finally relinquished the lead when star point guard Sekou Harris converted two free throws right before the half to give Plainfield a 32-30 edge.
With just over two minutes left in the third, the Cardinals went on a mini run and extended the lead from three to eight. After that, they showed why they belong as favorites to reach the final for the second straight year.
The Blue Bishops were gassed by the fourth and ended up surrendering 20 points in the last eight minutes of the contest, ultimately handing over the win. They sure kept their pride, though.
“Of course,” Armond Conover said. “We have no choice but to be happy with our effort.”
Added his twin brother, Amir, after his 14-point performance: “Dealing with the loss last year, losing by over 30 points, it was heart-breaking. We didn’t put in our all that game. We wanted to give 150 percent this time. And we did.
“They know we gave them all they could handle and I want to thank my teammates for playing so hard. We played our hearts out.”
The highly magnified Tournament of Champions doesn’t always pit the strongest matchups, considering the wide gaps of talent when jumping from group to group, parochial to non-parochial. On this night, however, Asbury Park looked like it belonged on the same stage as the state’s best.
“It was very rewarding,” Asbury Park coach Dave Johnson said. “The kids executed what we worked on and we were able to stop them because we took them out of their flow. We came out and performed, and we took a bite in this tournament. We had nothing to lose. We’re very proud.”
Contact Brian Fitzsimmons at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @FitzWriter