By Ryan Fennell
Rumson- Before a capacity crowd at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School, senior J.J. Conklin dropped a career-high 22 points to lead his Bulldogs to a 47-39 win over Ridge Road rival Red Bank in the first round of the NJSIAA CJ Group II playoffs on Tuesday night.
Conklin’s biggest basket of the night came late in the fourth quarter with the Bulldogs clinging to a slim four-point lead when he dropped a three to put RFH up by seven, and the game out of reach for the Bucs, with under a minute to play.
“Conklin is a six-foot, six-inch 3-man,” Rumson-Fair Haven head coach Chris Champeau said. “We’ve forced him, this year, to play in the post a little because he’s tall, but when teams line up their 4 (or) 5 guy on him, I try to isolate him because he’s so quick off his feet. He had a great game. He carried us.”
“I feel like I can always take three’s if necessary,” Conklin said.
The game was a battle from the start, and although RFH lead from early in the first quarter, Red Bank stayed within three points for the majority of the game, pulling within one-point five times in the second half.
“They’re very athletic,” Champeau said of the Bucs’ team, “So you always know you’re in a game with them. Every time we’ve played them it’s been close. When they made those runs I told the guys, if we move the ball and take care of it before they can bring the doubles, we’ll get layups and open looks.”
Champeau said he had to remind his team that they were still winning the game despite Red Bank’s tenacity.
“In prior games, that happened and we ended up not winning,” he said.
With 3:39 to play and RFH ahead 36-34, Red Bank’s Asim Jules drove the lane for a basket and was fouled on the play and converted on the free-throw to pull Red Bank within in one.
Conklin was sent to the line on the other end and made one of two for a 37-35 lead. Later, with the score unchanged, Rumson’s Jack Hermann came down with a huge offensive rebound and put the ball back up for the basket to give the Bulldogs’ their largest lead since early in the quarter before Conklin nailed the three to put the game virtually out of reach.
“I was really proud of the way our guys hung on,” said Champeau. “They made a bunch of runs, we knocked down some free throws, and it was a great way to start the tournament.”
Although it was the first round of the state playoffs, this was the third meeting between the two schools this season and while RFH had bettered Red Bank in the previous two meetings, Champeau said he reminded his club that it’s very difficult to beat the same team three consecutive times.
Conklin said Red Bank showed a 2-3 defense that caught the Bulldogs off-guard early but were able to make the necessary adjustments.
“They came out early and started doubling Jack Donnelly, so I had some open lanes,” Conklin said. “[Donnelly’s] usually our number one option so someone had to step up.
“We played well on defense,” he added. “We played good team defense. We were trying to buckle down on defense more [in the fourth quarter]. If we got a couple of stops, we could get it going on offense.”
“Before a sold-out crowd with two great schools, it was a big win,” Champeau said.
“It’s definitely big because they are our crosstown rivals,” Conklin added. “It was great to have everyone out here.”
With the win Rumson-Fair Haven advanced to face second-seeded Ewing on Thursday.