Bergen Catholic leads Rutgers Prep for state title


PISCATAWAY — Bergen Catholic continued Bergen County’s streak of winning at least one state title.

The Crusaders captured the NJSIAA Non-Public A men’s basketball championship with a vengeful 66-54 victory over Rutgers Prep on Saturday at Rutgers’ Jersey Mike’s Arena.

Bergen Catholic won that title in 2019 — but the pandemic cut short the Crusaders’ first win of 2020, and last year the NJSIAA canceled the entire postseason.

“We were robbed last year and part of my sophomore year, and it feels good to stay here,” Crusaders senior guard Julian Brown said. “Not even to win, but just to stay here and be on this stage again, with a new group of guys.”

From 2015 to 2019, County Bergen – best known for football – won at least one title, so the streak now stands at six consecutive years. Additionally, with Don Bosco winning this title in 2017 and 2018, a Bergen County program has won the Non-Public Title A four years in a row.

“It just keeps getting better,” Bergen Catholic coach Billy Armstrong said of Bergen County basketball. “Sometimes we’re not talked about enough, I think, in the state of New Jersey.”

Sophomore forward Brandon Benjamin was superb and led four Crusaders in double figures with 15 points. More impressively, the 6-foot-8 Benjamin had game-highs of 14 rebounds and five blocks.

Senior Will Richardson scored 14 points, second Terry Copeland had 13 points and 10 boards, and Brown scored 11, including two key 3-pointers in the fourth.

Junior Jadin Collins led Rutgers Prep (26-4) with a game-high 23 points and 10 rebounds. Senior Ryan Zan scored 15 and senior Ryan Pettit scored 10, after burning Bergen Catholic for 26 in a 70-64 win in January.

Bergen Catholic (22-8) took the lead early in the first quarter and never gave it back. In the second quarter, Richardson scored 10, with a pair of three-pointers, to help extend a 14-11 lead to 32-25 at halftime.

What this means

Bergen Catholic qualifies for the six-team Tournament of Champions, which opens Tuesday at the RWJ Barnabas Center in Toms River. Thursday’s semifinals and Sunday’s final are here at Rutgers.

The Crusaders join Roselle Catholic, who previously won the Non-Public B title, and they will be joined by Sunday’s four public champions. They could be joined by another school in Bergen, if Ramapo beats Woodrow Wilson in the Group 3 final at Rutgers.

This is the final year of the TOC, which started in 1989 but is eliminated in order to shorten the season. In 2019, Bergen Catholic was a TOC finalist.

“It’s a great feeling, and we’re super excited to be part of, unfortunately, the latest TOC,” Armstrong said. “Our children will have a day off [Sunday] and then it’s back to training on Monday.

“The Fifth Man” by Bergen Catholic

The performance of Bergen Catholic’s often overlooked fifth starter cannot be overstated. Senior swingman Elias Espinosa played with terrific balance and had eight points, eight rebounds and four assists.

Espinosa’s 3-pointer from the right corner in the first quarter gave the Crusaders the lead to stay, 7-4, and was part of a 9-0 run to build an 11-4 lead. In the third he hit another 3-pointer to help extend the lead to 47-38 going into the fourth.

“He’s our smartest player with the highest IQ,” Armstrong said. “All he cares about is helping the team win. He was playing like crazy, and he just makes smart plays and he’s our best post feeder. We’re not where we’re at. are this year without him.

By the numbers

Bergen Catholic’s 2-3 zone defense was active and outstanding and held Rutgers Prep to 33 percent shooting (23 for 70). The Crusaders limited Rutgers Prep to 1 for 19 from behind the arc and had 10 blocks.

“It was a bit of a weird game,” Armstrong said. “We played in the zone, but we are usually a men’s team, but it worked and we improved.”

Bergen Catholic punished Rutgers Prep inside and shot 55% from the field (26 for 47). Benjamin shot 7 for 9 and Copeland 5 for 6.

Rutgers Prep play a relentless man-to-man defense on the perimeter and stayed there by forcing Bergen Catholic to 21 turnovers.

They said it

“The kids are really connected and they care about each other and they help each other, and they believe in each other, which is just awesome,” Armstrong said.

“When we lost against [Rutgers Prep Jan. 15], our whole team fell apart, Benjamin said. “When we got back together, day after day in training, we found our brotherhood again.”

Greg Mattura is a sports reporter for For full access to live scores, breaking news and analysis from our Varsity Aces team, subscribe today. To get the latest news straight to your phone, sign up for our newsletter and download our app.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @gregmattura


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