The frenetic final seconds of the New Brunswick High School boys basketball team’s 58-57 victory over Piscataway served as a microcosm of the wild days that preceded the dramatic season-opening win.
Due to coronavirus-related restrictions within the school district, New Brunswick commenced practice outdoors while the vast majority of Greater Middlesex Conference programs were drilling inside the confines of warm gymnasiums.
Players dressed appropriately for tryouts at Archibald Park, located in the city’s fourth ward, and adhered to all NJSIAA-mandated safety protocols shortly after undergoing rapid COVID-19 tests, for which every member of the program was negative.
New Brunswick is making the jump this year to the Red Division and the timing could not be worse, as graduation decimated the program.
Among the conference’s most consistent teams over the past two years with a 37-16 record during that stretch, New Brunswick graduated six players who combined to average 72 points per game.
New Brunswick was unable to get inside the high school gym until late last week, at which time it began to prepare in earnest for Thursday’s opener at Piscataway, one of about a dozen high school programs statewide that opted out of the fall sports season because of coronavirus-related concerns.
New Brunswick head coach Samir Sanu said the success of his school’s athletics teams during the fall season emboldened the district’s board of education to allow the Zebras to take their game indoors, even as students district-wide recently learned they would remain on remote instruction until at least April.
“My heart was in my throat after seeing Carteret and Perth Amboy being shut down,” Sanu said of the two Middlesex County school districts who opted out of the winter sports season. “Both towns have similar demographics to us, especially Perth Amboy. I’m thinking, it’s not looking good.”
Earlier this week, more adversity came New Brunswick’s way, as inclement weather forced the team to cancel Tuesday’s practice, relegating players and coaches to meet virtually.
The Zebras never had a game scrimmage or even an intrasquad scrimmage before taking the court against Piscataway.
Sanu and his staff worked feverishly to install offensive and defensive elements in the days and even hours leading up to the season-opener. With an emphasis on conditioning and having to train five days outdoors, New Brunswick barely got any work in on its zone offense.
“I’m just so proud of my kids with everything we’ve been going through,” Sanu said. “Not one kid complained about being out in the cold, out there with rubber gym basketballs. They were just excited to be around each other again. Technically, we haven’t seen each other since March, for the most part, other than being virtual.”
A conference rule, which prohibits a team from winning or sharing a division title if it petitioned the league to drop down a division, prevented New Brunswick from sharing the White Division championship with Edison last season after both teams split their regular-season series and finished with identical 10-2 division records.
The adversity that ended last year and carried over to this season in the form of a pandemic prepared New Brunswick, which returned just one letterwinner with significant varsity experience, well for Thursday’s wild finish.
Piscataway led 55-54 with 20 seconds left when sophomore guard Eli Rodriguez converted a steal into a layup to give the Zebras a 56-55 advantage they would not relinquish.
Rodriguez’s backcourt mate, Josiah Brown, was fouled seconds later. He made two free throws for a 58-55 New Brunswick lead.
After Piscataway closed the deficit to 58-57, the Chiefs fouled junior forward Manny Rojas, who missed the front end of a one-and-one.
The Chiefs rebounded the miss but immediately turned the ball over on a travel. New Brunswick immediately returned the favor, committing the same infraction to give Piscataway possession.
With three team fouls to give over the final eight seconds and Piscataway having to run the length of the court, New Brunswick smartly fouled the Chiefs multiple times until 1.5 seconds remained. Inbounding from the side of the court, Piscataway’s best look at the basket was a buzzer-beating attempt from more than 30-feet that fell harmlessly to the ground as time expired.
Brown and Kareem Lue finished with 20 points apiece. The duo combined for 11 points in the fourth quarter. Teammates Dion Jackson and Brian Latham netted eight and six points, respectively, with the latter making some big shots down the stretch.”
The quartet countered William Corley, who poured in a game-high 28 points, and Dallas Jones, who added 11 points for Piscataway, which had nine players in the scoring column.
“They could have easily folded and made many excuses, but we try to be a non-excuse program and roll with the punches and always put our best foot forward,” Sanu said. “It’s a testament to the kids and the kids before that set the foundation to turn the program around and get us to where we are right now.”
Before Sanu, who starred at Sayreville before playing at Rider University and William Paterson University, took over the New Brunswick program five years ago, the Zebras had six different coaches following the retirement in 2004 of legendary mentor Odie Page.
In the four years prior to Sanu’s arrival, New Brunswick won just eight of 89 games.
“We were the laughing stock of the county,” Sanu said, noting the program made such a dramatic turnaround that the Zebras struggled to find nonconference opponents and even had to pick up games against the likes of perennial state powers such as The Patrick School.
Of all the success his program has enjoyed in recent years, Sanu said Thursday’s victory ranks among the finest, because it came during a time of great uncertainty amid the pandemic.
“With everything going on,” Sanu said, “we are just so grateful and excited to be able to do what we love with some kind of normalcy.”