HHS hoop teams set for county quarterfinal tests

Boys, girls to face rivals from B-R

By: Rudy Brandl
   Hillsborough High will face familiar basketball rivals when the Somerset County Tournament kicks into high gear next Monday night.
   All the preliminary round action has been completed. All the pretenders have been eliminated. Now, just eight teams remain in each of the brackets for boys and girls in this year’s county hoop tourneys.
   As expected, HHS and Bridgewater-Raritan are among the contenders once again. Each year, the boys and girls from two of the county’s largest schools enter the SCT with hopes of bringing home a title.
   This year’s brackets don’t make it possible for Hillsborough and Bridgewater to face each other in the semifinals or finals. The HHS and B-R girls have met in some great semifinal games while the boys played for the title a few years ago.
   Monday night, unfortunately at two different locations, Hillsborough and Bridgewater-Raritan will meet in quarterfinal action in both tournaments. The girls’ game, featuring the sixth-ranked Lady Panthers and third-seeded Lady Raiders, will be played in Hillsborough. The boys’ battle between the No. 8 Raiders and top-ranked Panthers will be contested in Bridgewater. Both games begin at 7 p.m.
   Although the HHS girls and B-R boys are probably slight favorites, both games definitely will be up for grabs. All four meetings between the two schools have been very close games.
   The Lady Raiders have already beaten Bridgewater twice, and that old sports adage about beating the same team three times could rear its ugly head. HHS stole the first one with a late run on the road and won an ugly home game in last week’s rematch. B-R, out of the Delaware Division race, will be out for some serious revenge in the county game.
   HHS head coach Jim Reese knows it’s never an easy game when one of his Delaware Division rivals comes to town.
   "We all know each other so well and that makes it tough," Reese said. "That’s why you see so many ugly games. We know how to stop each other."
   Reese’s team has advanced to the finals the last six years, winning in 1998 before losing to Immaculata the last five times. Last year, it took a 33-29 victory over B-R in the semifinals to get there. This time, Hillsborough will need to beat Bridgewater and a very talented Rutgers Prep squad, which gained enough respect to receive the No. 2 seed.
   "There’s a lot more good teams in the county this year," Reese said. "There are a lot of talented teams out there."
   Fourth-seeded Montgomery and fifth-ranked Ridge could present problems for Immaculata on the upper half of the bracket, while Hillsborough, B-R and Prep are all very solid on the bottom. Hillsborough must beat three very good teams to win its first county title since 1998.
   The HHS boys have never won a county championship and the No. 8 seed might not make this year look like the one that will change that fact. However, the Raiders are one of the area’s hottest teams. They’ve won 10 of their last 12 games, with the only two losses being nail-biters that were decided by a 3-pointer in the closing seconds.
   Hillsborough avenged a prior 39-35 loss to Bridgewater by winning on the road in impressive fashion last week. HHS held the Panthers to a season-low 35 points in a 49-35 victory. Monday’s county showdown will be a much-anticipated rubber match.
   This year’s boys’ tournament is even more wide-open than the girls’ tourney.
   "There are a lot of good teams that can win it," HHS head coach Ian Progin said. "In the past, it was always Bridgewater and Franklin and maybe somebody else. This year, a lot of teams have a shot."
   Progin thinks his team will be in the mix, but the Raiders must also defeat three solid teams to capture the trophy. If HHS can get past B-R, it will face the winner of fourth-ranked Montgomery and fifth-seeded North Plainfield. The lower half of the bracket features Delaware Division rivals Franklin (2) and Watchung Hills (3) along with Immaculata (6). The Raiders have beaten Watchung twice but dropped both games to Franklin.
   Once they take care of their important Delaware Division games this week, the Raiders will be all guns blazing for Bridgewater.
   "It’s going to be a dogfight," Progin said. "It’s a rival and both schools don’t really care for each other. It’s great for basketball. Two good teams will battle it out again."
   The boys’ semifinals are scheduled for Monday, Feb. 23 at 6:00 and 7:30 p.m., with the girls’ semis slated for Feb. 24 at the same times. HHS would play in the second boys’ game but first girls’ game in the semifinal doubleheaders. The SCT championship doubleheader is set for Feb. 26 at 6 p.m. for the girls and 8 p.m. for the boys. All action will take place at Bridgewater-Raritan’s new gymnasium.