by Andrew Garda

CALDWELL — Immaculate Conception’s Jalen Carey is the type of player you want with the ball in his hands at the closing moments of a tight basketball game.

So it should come as no surprise that Carey was crashing the lane and drawing a foul with just under a second left in the Lions’ game against the Patrick School Tuesday night.

It should also come as no surprise that Carey hit both free throws, putting a 65-63 dagger in the Celtics hopes of a return to the Tournament of Champions, which they won last year.

So, IC stays alive and advances in a tough section of the North Jersey, Non-Public B bracket, facing Hudson Catholic on Thursday at 7p.m in Jersey City at St. Peter’s University.

For the Lions, the victory took a little bit of the sting from last Saturday’s loss to Newark East Side in the Essex County Championship. That game also hinged on Carey, somewhat, as he hurried a three-point shot with under a minute to go that would have given the Lions the lead and missed.

For some reason there was nobody from IC under the basket for a rebound, so East Side took the ball, and the championship shortly after that.

This time out, Carey took the higher percentage play.

He also drew that foul, an unusual call late in a game like this, when the officials will swallow the whistle for any but the most egregious fouls. Make no mistake, Carey was absolutely fouled.

It’s just not a call you see very often.

“I should have made that shot,” the Syracuse commit said after the game. “That’s why they called the foul. I definitely got hit.”

Senior Jalen Carey drives the lane, drawing a foul with less than a second left. His two free throws gave the Lions a 65-63 win over Patrick in the first round of the NJSIAA Tournament.
Senior Jalen Carey drives the lane, drawing a foul with less than a second left. His two free throws gave the Lions a 65-63 win over Patrick in the first round of the NJSIAA Tournament.

The chance for that foul call is why the smart play is to drive to the bucket, though, a lesson Carey clearly learned from Saturday’s loss.

Lions head coach Jimmy Salmon  also learned from the ECT defeat, strategically using all of his timeouts before the end of the game.

“Well, I didn’t want to take them home with me,” he said. “I still got one left for the counties.”

Saturday, Carey already had the ball, so Salmon said he just let the play run. This time, he used his timeout to slow things down and set Carey up.

Carey finished the night with 17 points, including two key three-point shots in the final quarter and those final free throws, He also had seven assists. Justin Winston, coming off a great 17 point effort against East Side, led the team against Patrick with 23 points, five rebounds and five points from the charity stripe.

Unfortunately, he was also called for a technical foul when he hung on the rim post-dunk just a bit too long. That led to five straight points by the Celtics to lock the game at 58-58.

Luckily for the Lions, they had a secret weapon — Raejon Figures.

Figures scored the third most points with 9, hitting a key three-point shot early in the fourth quarter which gave IC a 53-48 lead. Not long after the game was tied at 58, Figures was fouled on another three-point try with just under two minutes to play and hit all three of his shots from the free throw line to give the 61-58 lead.

While for much of the game, Winston and Carey carried the load as they often have during the season, moments like Figures stepping up made the difference for the team offensively.

Salmon was very pleased seeing that.

“I think we’re becoming a hard to guard team,” he said.

Defensively, the Lions had their hands full with big Valdir Manuel, who finished with 27 points for the Celtics and seemed to got the best of Elijah Hutchins-Everett in the fourth. Manuel was huge in the paint and at times simply looked unstoppable, which makes some of the choices the Celtics made in the fourth quarter — like taking a contested three-point shot when Jalen Carey had fallen on the opposite end of the court and they had the Lions outnumbered — hard to fathom.

A perfect time to get the ball in to their big man, Markquis Nowell opted for a shot from the perimeter with a defender in his face and missed and the Lions rebounded.

The Lions weren’t without their own issues, as they struggled to guard the perimeter early on, and then couldn’t contain Manuel later in the game.

Salmon set up a tough schedule this season in the hopes that when the going got tough, his team would be battle tested enough to find a way and win.

Tuesday night, that was absolutely the case.