Allentown High School’s boys’ basketball team a year ago went 16-10 and had a welcome rebound from the previous season when the Redbirds did not break through with their first victory until the season was about half over.
With a 3-1 start on the current season, fans are hoping that winning will become more a part of the team’s fabric despite rebuilding after four starters graduated.
“I think the first game we came out strong and in the second game, we were out of character a bit and struggled,” coach Jay Graber said, as Allentown opened with a 79-41 victory over Lawrence High School Dec. 18 and then lost to the Hun School, 67-40, Dec. 19. “We have to pass the ball a little more and be a little more patient. Against teams like [Hun], you can’t make mistakes like we did last year, and you have to be a little more disciplined.”
It showed in the victory over Nottingham High School, 63-52, Dec. 22 in the getaway game before the holiday break. Nahshon Taylor led three players in double-figures, scoring 17 points. Bekim Nikovic scored 15, while Tristan Millett dropped in another dozen. Allentown led, 36-21, at halftime. “I think their playing together for a long time helps. No one on the team is selfish,” Graber said. “They know how to get it done and to build on it.”
Last year’s team developed that knack, but Dan Bascara, Hal Shaw, Austin Moy and Xavier Roldan are graduated. Millett is the only returning starter.
But Taylor, a junior guard, and senior forwards Nikovic, Hunter Gerling and Luke Newman, the tallest starter at 6 feet 4 inches tall, gained some experience last year to fit well into this year’s starting lineup. Four other players are ready to contribute through the season: senior swingman Peyton Jackson, senior guard Matt Blazier, 6- foot-1 junior forward Anthony Alexander and freshman guard Elijah Kelly.
They showed the chemistry that goes with years of playing together in the latest game of their four-game, season-opening stretch Dec. 27 in the 33rd annual Primetime/ ESCIT Tournament hosted by Trenton Catholic Academy. The Redbirds demolished two-time defending NJSIAA Group II champion Newark Tech High School, 54- 33. Millet, with a game-high 14 points, led four players in double-figures in a balanced attack typical of last season’s success. Gerling and Blazier each scored 11 points, and Nikovic had 10. The win moved Allentown into the championship game Dec. 28 against Archbishop John Carroll High School of Wayne, Pennsylvania, which beat New Hope-Solebury High School (Pennsylvania) in the other semifinal.
Allentown took an 11-0 lead to start the game against Newark Tech and led, 34-11, at halftime. Newark Tech slipped to 0-3.
Graber is more concerned with progress for the moment and then competing in the Colonial Valley Conference Patriot Division.
“I’m not worried about [the division race], but taking it one game at a time,” Graber said. “They have to work hard and produce and not look back. They’re progressing well, I think. They have to keep working together.”
Along with passing the ball a bit better, Graber said his team must play tough on defense. Each player has a role to fill.
For Millett, Graber said it’s his leadership and controlling the ball at the point. Newman has been playing well, according to Graber, and plays hard, especially on defense, where he has rebounded strongly. Nikovic needs to continue to be versatile scoring from outside and inside, the coach said. Graber said Gerling needs to continue to shoot with confidence as a good, pure scorer, and Taylor also shoots well and has a lot of energy.
Blazier also has been providing a lot of energy coming off the bench and has limited the team’s turnovers.
Graber said last year’s team, the first group he had coached for all four years, showed signs of turning things around that he hopes will carry over to this season.
“They took it personal and put in a lot of time and effort. They won tough games,” Graber said.
The team reached the Mercer County Tournament quarterfinals, where it lost to Hamilton High School West and lost early in the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group III state tournament to Nottingham.
This year’s team is looking to make the postseason and perhaps go a little farther. For now, Graber is taking things slowly, as many new starters and new varsity players get accustomed to their new roles.
Allentown’s girls basketball team went on a 21-9, second-quarter surge for a 30-18 halftime lead, and it rolled past Nottingham, 63-41, Dec. 22.
Sophomore guard Ryan Weise led the way with 21 points for Allentown (2-1), while seniors Bianca Santos at forward and Kali Hartshorn at guard added 12 and 10 points, respectively.