NEW YORK -- Two New Jersey powerhouses, St. Patrick (Elizabeth) and St. Benedict's (Newark), made statements Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
They did so at the expense of the all-powerful New York Catholic High Schools' Athletic Association AA Division.
"Winning our state [New Jersey] is most important but winning a national championship is another goal," said Kansas-bound forward Quintrell Thomas of St. Patrick.
Thomas' elite performance included 25 points, making 9 of 11 shots (and three dunks), 13 rebounds (10 defensive) and three blocks in 30 minutes.
"He brought an intimidation factor for the quick guards that like to slice," St. Patrick coach Kevin Boyle said.
St. Patrick padded its resume and will likely ascend the Elite 25 after a 64-56 victory over No. 3 St. Raymond (Bronx, N.Y.) before 4,500 at the Nike Super Six Invitational.
The Celtics, who play in the McDonald's Classic next weekend in Erie, Pa., could play No. 11 Rice (Manhattan. N.Y.), provided both teams win opening-round games against St. Edward (Lakewood, Ohio) and Cathedral Prep (Erie), respectively.
"That's the nature of the way we schedule," Rice coach Moe Hicks said. "We want to play the best; we won't settle for less."
The Super Six tripleheader featured four teams in the top 11 of the ESPN HIGH Elite 25 boys' basketball rankings and Mount Vernon (N.Y.), which was ranked in the preseason.
No. 1 St. Benedict's (14-1) rebounded from a loss last week against the Academy of the New Church (Bryn Athlyn, Pa.) to edge Rice, 55-52.
"It was a rollercoaster week," St. Benedict's coach Dan Hurley said. "We're not used to losing in our program. We handled it well today."
Samardo Samuels apparently did not. The 6-9 power forward from St. Benedict's was benched early in the game for lackadaisical play in the loss and in the subsequent practice on Wednesday.
The time on the bench motivated Samuels, who was named the game's MVP, after recording 14 points and 13 rebounds in 23 minutes.
Samardo's three-point play with 29.4 seconds left, snapped a tie, giving the Gray Bees a 52-49 lead. Tamir Jackson (15 points) knocked down three free throws in the last 20 seconds to settle Hurley's club.
Rice had a chance to win it in the final minute with the score tied but Durand Scott (14 points) dribbled the ball off his foot.
"I just lost the handle," Scott admitted.
Rice's Kemba Walker, a Connecticut recruit, topped all scorers with 18 points (on 9 of 16 shooting) but had eight turnovers.
Junior center Gregory Echenique, who went scoreless in the last game, added 15 points and 11 rebounds as the Gray Bees held a 38-28 scoring edge in the paint.
"[Winning] today was big especially after the loss," Jackson said.
Rice trailed 17-13 after one quarter but took a 25-20 lead with two minutes left in the half on Kemba Walker's layup. Early in the second quarter, St. Benedict's coach Dan Hurley was hit with a technical foul, which changed the pace.
Rice, which relies on speedy guard play, upped the tempo using a 12-3 run over six minutes.
The Gray Bees, who boast two rugged 6-9 post players, were beaten in transition but controlled the half-court sets. Echenique, a heavily-recruited 6-9 junior, and the Louisville-bound Samuels combined for 29 points and 26 rebounds. The Grays Bees were stout on the boards, holding a 44-22 edge.
St. Raymond entered the game fresh off a tough 81-74 overtime loss to Rice on Saturday afternoon and they have now endured a second setback in less than 24 hours.
"We couldn't throw the ball in the Hudson River today," said St. Raymond coach Oliver Antigua.
He wasn't kidding.
The Ravens normally shoot 50 percent from the floor, mainly scoring in transition, but Sunday they made only 17 of 66 shots for 25.8 percent.
No. 5 St. Patrick held a 47-43 edge after three quarters but put the game away with a burst.
Jermel Jenkins' transition layup gave St. Patrick a 53-45 lead with 5:06 left. Jenkins scored 11 points, one of three Celtics in double-figures.
Thomas scored six points in the final quarter, including two dunks.
"Everyone is always comparing New York and New Jersey," Thomas said. "New York is a great basketball city but it didn't matter today. We were focused and ready."
Antigua would not blame the back to back games for the loss.
"We have [midterm] exams this week so we'll regroup and get ready for the second half of the season," he said.
Dexter Strickland capped off an 11-point, seven-assist game announcing at a postgame news conference that he's headed to North Carolina. Strickland, a 6-3 junior, chose the Tar Heels over Michigan State and Florida.
Flick of the switch
In the opening game, Mount Vernon (N.Y.) used a ferocious fourth-quarter rally for a 66-60 win over Paterson Catholic.
"We came out flat; I can't explain it," Mount Vernon coach Bob Cimino said. "Our shots weren't falling in the first half but I told them [the players] to stay with it.''
Paterson Catholic, New Jersey's third-ranked team, took leads of 11 and 15 points in the second half before the Knights flipped a switch.
Kevin Jones, a 6-7 West Virginia-bound forward, was named the game's top player after scoring 25 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. Sherrod Wright, who only connected on 7 of 20 field goals, finished with 20.
Cimino told his precocious junior a special visitor was in the stands.
"Sherrod grew up in North Carolina and when I told him [North Carolina] coach Roy Williams was in the house, it seemed to pick up his game."
The same could be said for Knights, who outscored Paterson Catholic 29-12 in the final period, rallying from a 48-37 hole.
"I made sure we didn't get frustrated," Jones said. "We couldn't give up; we needed defensive intensity."
Paterson Catholic, an underclass-dominated squad, received 16 points from Lance Brown and 12 from Seton Hall-bound point guard Jordan Theodore.
Mount Vernon trailed, 30-27, after one half and fell deeper in the third quarter before rallying.
"I don't want to see these guys in the next two years," Cimino said of PC's youthful club.
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also for worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y. and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.