MONROE: Defensive duo sparks huge MTHS win

Wilson, Ruopoli lock down Rosario as Falcons lock up victory over McCarrick

By Rich Fisher, Sports Editor
   Thanks to a couple of veteran role players, the Monroe Township High boy’s basketball team measured up in its biggest game of the year.
   In many years, in fact.
   ”This was a measuring stick, and this is by far the biggest win in my tenure here, no questions asked,” said fourth-year coach Bob Turco after the Falcons 64-61 victory at Cardinal McCarrick Tuesday night. “It’s big not just because of who it was, but because of where it was.”
   The game was played in South Amboy, against a team whose Greater Middlesex Conference White Division record is 145-15, and who won the GMC Tournament title two of the last three years.
   ”We beat a big dog,” Turco said. “We’ve been striving for and trying to gain some respect over the past three or four years, and to say we belong.”
   This one might have done it, as Kenny Pace fired in 22 points and Steven Blish added 16 to give the Falcons their 10th straight victory and clinch a berth in the Central Jersey Group III tournament.
   But it was the unsung heroes who keyed the victory, as seniors Joe Ruopoli (5-foot-9) and D’Meetri Wilson (5-10) took turns guarding 6-3 Julio Rosario. The duo held the highly recruited Division I prospect to a season-low 17 points, eight below his average.
   ”It was a great thing for me to watch,” Turco said. “They both showed how much they mean to the team. Defense is what wins championships. We all know that. It’s a cliché but it’s true.
   ”The way they played tells you what kind of kids they are. They’re seniors who are sharing playing time with underclassmen, and that can be tough. But they wait for opportunities and each one of these kids, when they get their opportunity they perform.”
   What made their efforts even more impressive, is that the two played Rosario in a straight man-to-man defense with little help.
   ”Every so often we’d run another guy at him, but they were in what we call ‘man all over,’” Turco said. “We want them stuck on him to the point where they can tell us what flavor gum he’s chewing. For the most part they played him straight up and did a great job denying him the ball.
   ”The kid had five at halftime, scored 12 in the third quarter but didn’t score a point in the fourth. That sums up how hard he had to work. He got a little winded because that’s how hard they made him work to get everything he had.”
   Turco said the philosophy was simple — hold Rosario to 20 or less and the Falcons win. Hold him between 20 and 25 and they’re in the game, allow him over 25 and they lose.
   It was a pretty accurate estimate, considering they held him to three under the magic number and won the game by three.
   ”That’s the key to who we are,” Turco said. “We know people are going to score and some people are better than us. But we knew if we made him work hard, it would be tough. Out of his five baskets in the third quarter, four of those times he hit the floor.
   ”We have other go-to guys offensively. We all know people pick up newspapers and watch ESPN find out about who scored the points. But it was awesome to watch (Ruopoli and Wilson) on the bus ride home, as they fully understood how important they are to this team. At 5-9 and 5-10, what they accomplished is just mind boggling.”
   At the other end of the floor, Pace and Blish have been pretty mind boggling as well. The two are averaging close to a combined 40 points over the Falcons last three games.
   But despite all the good feelings, it was back to work on Wednesday.
   ”A lot of people would have taken the day off,” Turco said. “We had a 2½-hour practice for defensive day. We call it sweatshirt/sweatpants day. We’re taking charges, diving after loose balls.
   ”They know what they accomplished is great. But they’re looking ahead to three months from now and they know what’s ahead of them. We have a good shot at high seeds in the counties and states, but we have to keep working.”
   If they do, the biggest win in Turco’s tenure may have yet to be played yet this year.