by Andrew Garda

West Orange — Immaculate Conception boys basketball coach Jimmy Salmon is very vocal on the sidelines, shouting instructions to his players, chiding the officials and always moving along with the action.

That’s the type of thing that can build up a lot of sweat, but it’s not the reason Salmon was soaked after his Lions took down the Seton Hall Prep Pirates 63-51 in the Essex County Finals, grabbing ICHS’ first county title.

No, the reason Salmon was wet had nothing to do with the game. It was that his team ambushed him in the locker room and dumped a bucket of water on him.

“We planned that from the start too,” said junior Zakai Zeigler, whose two free-throws with just over a minute left put the game at 57-51 and essentially out of reach. “Just as much as winning the game, we said we’re gonna dump water on the coach after we win.”

Certainly, outside of a sluggish start which saw the Pirates open up an 8-3 lead that probably reminded Lions fans a little too much of the start of their team’s road loss to SHP on Jan. 23, Salmon had nothing much to sweat about. 

Immaculate tied the game at 8-8 with 2:27 left in the first quarter and finished with a 14-8 lead, built when they scored the last 11 points in the period.

The Lions never lost that lead again, and it was rarely even threatened as they harassed the Pirates all game long, and every time SHP tried to surge back, a Lion player would drop another dagger and kill the attempt.

“When we played them at their place, they came out strong,” senior Zion Bethea said after the game. “Today I feel like we came out strong and then we never let up. I felt like we maintained and then actually got better. That’s what happened today, we just played harder than the other team.”

Bethea, who led the team with 21 points, 12 rebounds and a pair of assists and Ziegler, who had 15 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists, were huge factors in the win, with Bethea carrying the load for most of the minutes and Ziegler hitting those key free throws late, and sparking the team’s first quarter comeback.

Add in Jayden Brown’s 15 points and the Lions always found someone to step up in key moments.

Prior to his soaking, Salmon said he was proud of all his team, but had especially seen growth from Bethea over the past few games which really made the difference for the Lions on Saturday.

“The last couple of weeks, man he’s really stepped his game up from a leadership standpoint with our team and it’s been evident,” Salmon said. “He won the game, in my opinion, versus East Orange and today he was definitely our leader. I’m happy to be his coach. I’m happy for him. I didn’t want him to be championship-less. He deserved [this].”

For Salmon, this was the culmination of a lot of near misses. The last two years, ICHS made it to the ECT finals only to lose to Newark East Side. 

“I always thought we were right there,” Salmon said of the previous two losses. “I always thought we were good enough, the ball just didn’t go the right way. When we had Jalen Carey, I thought that team was good enough. Last year, East Side shot 11-for-14 from 3-point range. It’s tough to beat a team that does that.”

Bethea said that while those two losses were tough, the team took away some important lessons from them.

“We used our experience [today],” he said. “I feel like we’ve been there for so long, it’s like God is just telling us that we got to win this one. [That] this was our game to win. Even in the beginning of the year, the tough games in the showcases, that all led up to this day right here.”

Immaculate prides itself on a tough schedule during the regular season, honing their competitive edge by facing the toughest teams they can find. 

During the East Orange and Payne Tech games, it was fair to wonder if the team was worn down, if the tough schedule had taken too much of a toll.

If there was any sign of exhaustion on Saturday, though, the Lions hid it well. They weren’t tired, they were energized. They weren’t beat up, they were battle-hardened. They weren’t making mistakes, they were causing Seton Hall to make them.

In fact, an observer could make the argument that they played harder in the fourth quarter, as the Pirates desperately tried to string a run together, than they did to start the first quarter.

With the game on the line, the Lions smelled the championship and closed the win off in a way we haven’t seen from them in a while, tenaciously pressing the Pirates, disrupting passes and generating turnovers.

“We just sped them up,” Bethea said. “We knew that they weren’t really that good under pressure, so I felt like we just turned them up and that’s what led us to the steals.”

Ziegler agreed saying that energy on defense was huge, and came about because of doubts the team heard last season. 

“Last year we had the size. We had a big advantage, but everybody said “Oh they’re bigger but they don’t play D, they’re soft.” Today we showed we’re coming in to take it this year. We’re not playing no games, we’re coming to take it.”

For Bethea, who will head to play at Hofstra next year, it was a relief after two years of near misses.

“I’m excited. Im at a loss for words right now,” he said. “This is truly a blessing. We’ve been here three years in a row and finally got it done.”

Salmon, who won a pair of Passaic County titles with Paterson Catholic in 1994 and 1996, it was the culmination of a surprising journey he didn’t think he’d make again before arriving at ICHS in 2015.

“I had no idea I was going to come back and be a high school coach. And Mrs. Neves, I knew her from my relationship with Patterson Catholic,” he said, referring to principal Michelle Neves, a mainstay at the sidelines of the boys and girls basketball games. “I thought it was ridiculous to even consider the fact that I would come back to be a high school coach again. But she’s a great person to work for, and I would not have come back for any other person than her. So, I’m happy I was able to do this with her.”

Now the team will turn its attention to the 2020 NJSIAA Boys Basketball Tournament, North Jersey, Non-Public B, where they are a No. 7-seed and will face No. 10-seeded Sinai Christian at home on Tuesday, Mar. 3, at 7pm. The reward for a win there is a game against No. 2-seeded Patrick School on the road.

“Our road in the states is obviously a tough one,” Salmon said. “Our bracket is the toughest one in America, I think, let alone the state. We’ll think about that in a couple of days.”

Until then, the team will enjoy the win, and Salmon will likely be in search of a towel and a change of clothes.