TRENTON — The Sun National Bank Center in Trenton, more widely known for hosting graduations for local high schools, was on center stage Tuesday evening as the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions Final was held in an arena outside of the Meadowlands for the first time in recent memory.
The 8,600-seat arena in Mercer County was about half-full during the Boys final between second-seeded St. Joseph and top-seeded Roselle Catholic. The Lions won their first ever Tournament of Champions title 65-49. Both schools had large contingents of students in the stands, standing in unison throughout the contest and at times battling each other through chants and taunts. But in the end, the game was won on the court, not in the stands, at least in the eyes of one of the pivotal players in the contest.
“The court was a little different and the feel for the whole arena was a bit different than we were used to, but at the end of the day you need to black those kinds of things out and just go play,” St. Joseph star Karl Towns said. “I don’t think their student section had any effect on us whatsoever. I can honestly say that the East Brunswick fans were rowdier and louder towards us. We just couldn’t beat Roselle Catholic on the floor. It had nothing to do with what was going on in the stands.”
Instead of having the game at the vacant Izod Center in East Rutherford, an arena with 20,000 seats that would have drowned out the crowd noise, the NJSIAA moved its signature contest to Trenton for the first time in the 25-year history of the event.
One of the louder moments of the contest came with 2:12 remaining in the third quarter, when Towns went over 1,000 career points with a made layup. The crowd gave Towns a standing ovation.
Fans and students from both schools had a longer than usual commute to the game, some traveling in excess of one hour to make it to Trenton for the opening tipoff, but the St. Joseph mascot was in the stands early pumping up his classmates.
“Parking was crazy, there were so many cars and not enough spots, so we had to park a little bit further away than we wanted to,” St. Joseph sophomore Tyler Vitale, who dresses up in the Falcons suit for each game, said. “But it’s nice for the guys to play in a smaller arena like this, with everybody packed in close, because if it’s full for a game, it’ll be much louder than it would be up at the Meadowlands or an arena like that.”
One of Vitale’s classmates, senior Christian Goldy, said that driving a little bit further than usual wouldn’t keep the Falcons fans away.
“We’ve had good crowds everywhere we’ve gone this season, so it’s not going to make much of a difference for us,” Goldy said. “I think a smaller building brings out the best in high school basketball. I think it’s cool that they decided to have the game here.”