Pope John Takes HWS Tourney With Win Over Sparta
Pope's Izzo named Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex County Basketball Championship tournament MVP.
Pope John and Sparta High Schools' boys basketball teams have played twice already this season, but Friday night was for a prize bigger than pride: the Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex County Basketball Championship. And with both teams looking to springboard from this game into the state tournament, the game held even greater importance.
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Played on a neutral site at Hopatcong High School, there was no room for either team to go slowly into the game. Both teams have been impacted by injuries to their big men. Pope John was without Cincinnati-bound Jermaine Lawrence, who re-injured his wrist, and Sparta's Mitchell Cohen, who injured his knee in the semi-final game with North Hunterdon last week.
And it was Pope John freshman Bryce Aiken that stepped up early on Friday night's stage scoring 11 of his team-high 17 points in the first quarter. Named to the All Tournament team, Aiken said "It feels good to get (the award), it is an honor and it shows my hard work is paying off."
Pope John junior Ryan Izzo's hard work filling the lane with the help of Moustapha Diagne and Patrick Mekongo paid off not only with 16 points on the night, but HWS Tournament MVP honors.
"It has been a lot of hard work," said Izzo. "Those days in the summer, going out working for three hours every day. Tonight my shots were just falling. It feels great to be MVP"
"We played so many tough games this year that we are ready for teams like that," said Pope John head coach Jason Hasson. "We played arguably the hardest schedule in the state and it got us ready for these tough games like this. We played in a war last night with Mt. Olive. To come back and be ready for tonight, it is a testament to where these guys are at."
Zachary Frick, the Spartan's prolific leader, looked like he was going have another big night, but ran into the defense of Noah Brown. Brown, challenged at halftime by Pope John coach Jason Hasson to defend Frick, kept him from scoring a single basket in the half. "He's just such an unbelievable competitor and athlete," said Hasson. "He took the challenge and just played really solid defense."
"Sparta is a very, very good team," said Hasson. "They are 22-4 for a reason. We knew it was going to be difficult to put them away. They kept coming after us, they hit a lot of big shots."
With Frick tied up, Jacob Melville stepped up for the Spartans scoring a game high 31 points, 22 of those coming in the second half. Frick would score 10 points and Kevin Foulds would contribute nine points.
"They hit big shots and we didn't," said Sparta head coach Brian Brennan. "We shot the ball extremely poorly in the second half with the exception of Jake. Congratulations to them."
THEY SAID IT - THE STATE TOURNAMENT
"We're playing a tough Don Bosco team. We've been in tough games all year just about everywhere. I think we will be ready for it." - Ryan Izzo
"Now our ultimate goals starts to take shape. The urgency was prevalent in the locker room. That is our main focus right now because we are only guaranteed five ore days of a season. We are coming together, we are starting to peak at the right time. We will have four good days of practice and we will be ready to go." - Hasson
No. 2 seed Sparta will host No. 15 seed Wayne Hills in the first round of the North 1, Group 3 State Tournament Tuesday at 7p.m. at Sparta.
Pope John, the No. 4 seed in the Non-Public, North A bracket, will host No. 5 seed Don Bosco Prep Thursday at Pope John at 7 p.m.