IRVINGTON, NJ — The senior-laden Irvington High School boys basketball team wanted to redeem itself after losing in the North Jersey Section 2, Group 3 state tournament championship game two seasons ago.
The Blue Knights accomplished that goal, ending a 27-year title drought.
With a high-octane offense and suffocating defense they have shown throughout the season, the second-seeded Blue Knights rolled past fifth-seeded and defending champion Colonia, 71-37, in the North 2 Group 3 final on March 8 in front of a packed IHS gym.
IHS, which improved to a 27-3 record on the season, won a sectional title for the first time since 1993 when it won two straight North 2, Group 4 championships.
Senior guard Nazamier Brooks scored 22 points, senior forward Moses Pierre had 15, senior guard Karriem Thomas had 11, with three three-pointers, senior forward Kymani Dunbar had 10 points and senior point guard Dezlyn Sebastien had five points. All are starters.
Sophomore forward Zaheem Crawford had four points and senior guard Malcaijah Smith had two points.
The championship especially was sweet for sixth-year head coach Elias Brantley, a 2006 IHS graduate.
Before the sectional final, Brantley told his seniors in the locker room to remember the feeling of losing to Chatham in the sectional final in 2018.
Indeed, the Blue Knights used that message as motivation, much to Brantley’s elation.
“I’ve been on to that feeling for two years,” an Brantley said after the game, referring to the loss in the sectional final two years ago. “I told them, ‘We got an hour-and-a-half to go out and leave everything out on the court.’ The kids came out and they played extremely hard. They played for each other.”
Brooks and Thomas were ecstatic for capturing the elusive sectional title.
“It feels good,” said Brooks. “We’ve waited four years for it. For four years, we’ve been practicing hard. It’s a blessing.”
“It means a lot to us,” said Thomas of winning the championship. “Losing sophomore year, we had a big season this year, not underestimating anybody, but be humble.”
The Blue Knights will play in the Group 3 state semifinal to be held at Bloomfield High School on March 11 against Ramapo at 7 p.m. Ramapo defeated Sparta, 64-50, to win the Section 1, Group 3 title and improve to 21-7. The other Group 3 semifinal game will pit Central champion Wall against South Jersey champion Timber Creek. The Group 3 state championship game will be held Sunday, March 15, at Rutgers University, which will host all four Group public finals that day.
At IHS, Brantley played for Eugene “Bam” Robinson, who attended the sectional final. A joyous Robinson gave Brantley a big hug after the game. Robinson, a 1993 IHS graduate, was a standout guard on the 1992 and 1993 sectional-title teams for IHS and was the head coach for the Blue Knights for 12 seasons from 2003 to 2014 before stepping down and being succeeded by Brantley. Robinson completed his sixth year as head coach at nearby Columbia HS.
The Blue Knights have been averaging 70 points a game this season.
After defeating Orange, 79-75, in the first round on March 2, the Blue Knights defeated 10th-seeded Chatham, 74-39, in the quarterfinals on March 4, both at IHS. Against Chatham, Pierre had 23 points, nine rebounds and three steals, Thomas had 18 points, Brooks posted 11 points, six rebounds, seven assists and four steals, junior guard JhaZaire Head had eight points, Sebastien had five points and five rebounds, and Dunbar had five points, six rebounds and three assists.
The Blue Knights defeated 11th-seeded Payne Tech, 77-50, in the North Jersey Section 2, Group 3 state tournament semifinals on March 6 at IHS, with Pierre scoring his 1,000th career point.
IHS reached the North 2, Group 3 sectional final in 2013 for the first time in Robinson’s tenure, losing to East Side. The Blue Knights didn’t return to the final until two years ago when, as the No. 5 seed, they defeated No. 12 seed Nutley in the first round, No. 13 seed Parsippany Hills in the quarterfinals and No. 8 seed Colonia in the semifinals before losing to No. 2 seed Chatham, 61-45, to finish with an 18-11 record. Last season, the second-seeded Blue Knights lost to seventh-seeded Summit, 74-63, in the North 2, Group 3 quarterfinals to finish with a 21-6 record.
The Blue Knights’ three losses this season have been close. They lost to Newark Tech, 66-60, in overtime; University, 77-75, and Seton Hall Prep, 62-60, in the Essex County Tournament semifinals.
Colonia, which finished with a 22-7, defeated top-seeded West Morris, 42-41, in the semifinals on March 6. West Morris won its second straight Morris County Tournament title this season.
Editor’s note: The Blue Knights defeated Chatham in the 2018 sectional final, not East Side. The date of the semifinal is March 11. The date of the Group 3 state final is Sunday, March 12, at Rutgers. Irvington will play Ramapo in the Group 3 state semifinal.
Photos by Felicia Laguerre Owens and Joe Ragozzino
Irvington vs. Colonia (North 2, Group 3 final) on March 9 at Irvington HS.
To view more photos, go to Facebook.com/IHS.NJ.