Blues fall a game short of national tournament

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f the Brookdale Community College men’s basketball team didn’t have an identity before this year, the Jersey Blues do now. They are one of the best teams in the Garden State Athletic Conference and a serious contender in Region 19.

This year, the Blues won the GSAC’s North Division regular season and playoff championships, and played for the Region 19 crown for the first time in school history. When Brookdale (21-11) lost to Gloucester (35-1), the No. 1 ranked team in the country, 74-66, in that final held at Salem Community College on Feb. 27, they were one game away from playing in the junior college national tournament.

"Our program has really elevated itself," said Paul Cisek, head coach. "Now, making the Final Four is what we expect.

"We accomplished a lot this year, but we expected a lot," he added. "Our goals were to win 20 games, which we did, and win the North Division championship."

The Blues opened up the GSAC playoffs at home in Middletown. Brookdale cranked its running game up early, racing out to a 26-9 lead and never looking back on the way to a 100-83 win over Passaic. Billy Gilligan (29) and Earl Agee (21) were the sharpest shooters, combining for 50 points.

That win put them in the Region 19 semifinals for the third straight year which was the North Division championship game against Union, the team the Blues shared the regular season title with. Brookdale again relied on Gilligan (20) and Agee (27) to prevail, 78-73. It was the school’s first North Division playoff title, and it put them in the GSAC final, which also is the Region 19 title game, for the first time in history. The team was one step away from the national tournament.

Their win was costly. Gilligan was whistled for his third technical foul of the season late in the game which meant an automatic one-game suspension. The high-scoring forward would not be eligible for the title game. Gilligan had reacted to a call that gave the ball to Union after it appeared that the ball had gone off a Union player.

Cisek thought the technical call could have gone either way, but did not think it was unwarranted.

"The technical was deserving, but I thought a warning would have been more deserving," he said. "I thought they should have taken the situation into account. It was a playoff game, and it was a close call that went against us. The whole team reacted to the call, but Billy was closest to the official and he got the T. It was unfortunate that he was in a situation where a call like that could have an impact."

Gilligan’s ineligibility did not cast a dark shadow over the Blues prior to the final. The Blues regrouped and went to Salem determined to bring home the Region title.

"They were ready to play," said Cisek. "They were disappointed, but they didn’t just roll over. They went and played hard.

"I can’t say that his absence cost us the game," he added. "We missed him certainly. We missed his scoring and rebounding. But there are too many variables in a basketball game."

One variable was the way the Blues approached the game. Earlier in the season, without Gilligan, the Blues had taken Gloucester to overtime at their place in a high-scoring game. In the rematch, Cisek wanted his team, which was averaging 86.5 ppg to play a more deliberate game.

"I didn’t want to run with them; they are more athletic than we are," Cisek explained. "They like to play an uptempo game and just come at you. I looked for us to do what we do best. We shoot the ball well so I wanted us to run our offense and look for the open shot. We play strong defense and we needed to come up with a great effort. We mixed our man-to-man with some 3-2 zone to mix things up.

"It came down to a game of spurts," he added. "They went on a late run in the first half to go up by 12 and then pushed it up to 18 in the second half. We turned it around and got to within three late in the game."

Gloucester would take a 38-26 lead at the break behind the play of Wykeen Kelly and William Chaney. With 7:43 remaining, Gloucester had a comfortable 58-40 lead. But the Blues would come roaring back. A 24-9 run would cut the lead to just three at 67-64 with 1:40 left in the game. Agee would hit for 12 and Rory Levine came off the bench to put in seven, including a pair of threes.

However, Gloucester was able to keep Brookdale at arm’s length by making six of eight free throws in the final 1:40 led by Kelly, who was 4-4.

"There’s a reason they’re the No. 1 team in the country," said Cisek. "They are a very solid team. I think it came down to their being a little more athletic than we were."

Agee would lead Brookdale with a game-high 26 and added 10 assists, while Kerry Betz backed him up with 23. Brookdale used its outside shooting to offset the inside play of Gloucester’s Jason Dunham (16 points and 13 rebounds). The Blues outshot Gloucester from three-point range 14-7 as Agee hit six and Betz five.

Gloucester had four players in double-figures led by Chaney’s 19.

Brookdale’s success is starting to have a positive impact on recruiting, noted Cisek. More and more of the better players in the Shore are beginning to take notice of the team.

"We’re starting to keep the kids from the area," he added.

Cisek will beat the bush recruiting as he has to replace the likes of Gilligan, Levine, Betz and Matt Raviaioli.

Agee, who blossomed into an exciting point guard, leads the freshman class that will be returning. Tom Tirrell, who made a good contribution down the stretch, also is back.

Now that the bar has been raised by the 1999-2000 Jersey Blues, the goal for future teams is to take that next step and get to the national tournament.