Ashton Miller found his rhythm in the second quarter by abandoning a flat perimeter jumper for some face-to-face time with the rim via dribble penetration.
In what would be a game-defining third quarter, the junior guard for Seton Hall Prep wound up finding something even better.
A friend with the same idea.
Alex Imegwu fought the same jumper-not-falling battle that Miller had earlier, though the senior had carried his woes into the second quarter. After one full half, Imegwu had just two points.
But he also went for a little drive in that third quarter, got unleashed just as Miller had, and helped the Pirates turn a one-point halftime lead into a 10-point advantage.
That separation proved to be critical as Seton Hall Prep, ranked No. 14 in New Jersey, weathered a late surge by No. 8 Montclair Immaculate for a 61-58 victory at the Hoop Group Tip-Off Showcase Friday night at Mount St. Dominic's Mary J. Codey Gym in Caldwell.
"My jump shot wasn't dropping in the first half," the 6-6 Imegwu said. "I was still confident in my jump shot coming into the second half, but I just tried to switch it up a little bit. Get in the lane, be aggressive, attack the basket."
Miller and Imegwu each erupted for 10 points in that productive third quarter as the Prep stretched a 26-25 lead into a 46-36 advantage. Miller finished with a career-high 21 points and also contributed eight rebound and two steals to earn Player of the Game honors for his club. Syracuse-bound senior guard Jalen Carey scored a game-high 22 points to take home that award for Immaculate.
Seton Hall did briefly lose its lead after a string of turnovers against fullcourt pressure late in the game, but reserve senior guard Jonah Benitez sank free throws in the final 2:10 to help the Pirates persevere.
Immaculate had the ball down, 60-58, in the waning seconds, though lost possession on an errant pass with 3.7 seconds to go. Miller was fouled off the inbound and made of one of two free throws for the final point with 1.4 seconds left.
"We had a little trouble (against late pressure)," Miller said. "We’re not young, but we’re still coming together as a team."
A victory under such circumstances against a well-regarded opponent is a great way to promote a sense of bonding. Miller is right about that right about that, but not as accurate about Seton Hall's collective age as he was with the ball in the second and third quarters, when he poured in 17 combined points.
Miller is one of three non-senior starters, along with 6-7 sophomore Jabri Abdur-Rahim, who recorded 15 points, 10 rebounds and three assists, and junior guard Geordon Walker. who had eight points. The first players off the bench for the Pirates were sophomores Mike Curran and Mario Bollo. Neither scored, but made helpful contributions in other areas.
"Some of those guys didn't play any varsity last year, so to get that kind of help from them was incredible," Abdur-Rahim said.
"They all did something," Imegwu said of the reserves. "They all played hard when they got in. They're great kids to have around practice. They push us; they're never going to take it easy on us, give us good matchups. And when they get into the game, they give something."
The giving Seton Hall did during one low span in the final quarter will certainly be a topic of stern conversation at the next practice. The Pirates were forced into six turnovers in the fourth quarter, including four within a 1:10 stretch that allowed Immaculate to seize a 58-57 lead.
Carey scored off a steal and feed by Elijah Hutchins-Everett to cut the Lions' deficit to 55-53 with 3:36 to go. Abdur-Rahim hit two free throws with 3:23 remaining to bump the lead back to four, but then Immaculate forced three straight turnovers off pressure for that lead. Jayden Brown hit one of two from the line, Raejon Fugures scored in transition off a pass from Dejourn Cook, and Carey scored at the end of another break.
"We got the strong lead, but then we came out too cool off that," Imegwu said. "We got sloppy with the ball, but we got it back. We were just trying to play hard, play together as a team, as one unit. We could have done some things better, but we ended up doing what we wanted to do."
The 6-7 Winston scored 15 points and had six rebounds for Immaculate. Seven of his points and three rebounds came in the fourth quarter.
Seton Hall Prep (1-0) 11--15--20--15--61
Mont. Immaculate (0-1) 15--10--11--22--58
Seton Hall Prep--61
Jabri Abdur-Rahim 3-1-6-15, Ashton Miller 6-2-3-21, Alex Imegwu 4-1-3-14, Geordon Walker 2-1-1-8, Reid 0-0-0-0, Curran 0-0-0-0, Bollo 0-0-0-0, Benitez 0-0-3-3.
Jalen Carey 9-0-4-22, Justin Winston 6-1-0-15, Raejon Figures 2-0-2-6, Dejourn Cook 1-0-1-3, Elijah Hutchins-Everett 1-0-0-2, Jayden Brown 1-1-1-6, Zaire Rogers 1-0-2-4.
Also at the Tip-Off Showcase:
Teaneck 71, Pascack Valley 51: Ja'Quaye James netted 28 points and fellow seniors Sage Robinson and Jayden Dayden contributed 11 and 10 points, respectively, to pace the 15th-ranked Highwaymen in Caldwell. Senior forward Alex Lin pumped in a game-high 33 points for Pascack Valley.