by Andrew Garda

WEST ORANGE — Third time was very much the charm for the Immaculate Conception boys basketball team when it came to Seton Hall Prep.

The Pirates had edged the Lions twice in the regular season, with IC collapsing in the third quarter on opening day and again in the fourth quarter of their rematch on Jan. 18.

The Lions refused to have that happen again on Tuesday night, riding an offensive explosion in the second half to a 54-45 victory and their first Essex County Finals berth in 57 years, according to head coach Jimmy Salmon.

IC, which went into halftime trailing 24-20, blew Seton Hall off the court in the second half, outscoring the Pirates 34-21.

“At halftime, we just talked to them about playing better defense,” head coach Jimmy Salmon said after the win. “Even though it was a low-scoring first half, we just weren’t happy with our effort. We thought we were a little lackadaisical.”

As usual, the Lions were led by a surging Jalen Carey, who scored 9 points in the third and fourth quarter. The Syracuse commit would end the day with a team-high 15 points, but he didn’t have to carry the load alone as freshman Amare Marshall dominated the fourth quarter, constantly driving the lane and drawing fouls. Marshall would score a total of 7 points, while shooting 50 percent in three trips to the free throw line. Junior Zion Bethea also contributed often in the second half, totaling 8 points.

Bethea and Marshall would both end the day with 10 points.

Salmon had nothing but praise for Marshall.

“He had a great game for us,” Salmon said. “He saved us. Nothing else can be said, he saved us.”

IC senior Jalen Carey throws down a dunk during Immaculate's 54-45 Essex County Tournament win over Seton Hall Prep on Tuesday, Feb. 20.
IC senior Jalen Carey throws down a dunk during Immaculate's 54-45 Essex County Tournament win over Seton Hall Prep on Tuesday, Feb. 20.

Carey agreed with his coach.

“It shows he’s a big-time player,” Carey said after the game. “He’s not afraid of the moment. Games like this, he’s always psyched up in the locker room, ready to play.”

Marshall certainly showed he wasn’t going to shrink in the spotlight as he continually crashed the lane on his way to the rim, never backing down and playing aggressively right until the final buzzer.

“That’s just my game, you know? Going to the hole strong,” Marshall said.

While the Lions were scoring almost at will on one end of the court, their defense was haunting the Pirates on the other. SHP couldn’t get a clean shot off, with the Lions constantly swarming them and forcing turnovers.

When the Pirates did get a shot off, they were served devastating blocks for their trouble. All in all, IC had 8 blocks on the night, with 4 coming in the final quarter, two by Clifford Omoruy and one absolute blitz by Bethea with less than a minute left that sent the ball into the Pirate bench and the IC player into the stands.

Salmon said another key to the big second half was altering his lineup to go with a smaller group.

“We normally go with two bigs and we had to go with one,” he said. “And that worked.”

Now the Lions will face Newark East Side in the Essex County Championship game on Saturday, Feb. 20, at 1 p.m. Like Seton Hall Prep, East Side defeated IC in both of their previous meetings.

The Lions will look to flip that script on Saturday, like they did on Tuesday.