In front of a packed house, North Bergen scores upset of HC

Eli Camacho was tightly guarded, but still made some big three-pointers for North Bergen, which stunned Hudson Catholic, 55-52, in overtime on Thursday night.

NORTH BERGEN – With just two seniors on the roster and playing in HCIAL-Red Division, one of the toughest in New Jersey, North Bergen was at best considered a young team on the rise, but the feeling inside the locker room was that this team had the capability to be a championship squad. To do that the Bruins had to prove that they could handle adverse situations against the top teams in Hudson County.

It was as adverse as it could get against Hudson Catholic when the Bruins' lone inside presence, Francisco Paulino, was on the wrong end of a tough call and fouled out in the waning seconds of regulation as the Hawks tied the game and sent it into overtime. Things went from bad to worse as Hudson Catholic grabbed a four-point lead in the extra session. However, the Bruins refused to accept defeat and looked to DeAvion Ellis to dig them out of the hole.

Playing in front of a packed house, the junior guard did just that with seven points in the final 2:15. That included a three-point play as North Bergen stayed red hot with a 55-52 upset over Hudson Catholic on Thursday night at North Bergen High School.

“Everybody has to hold their ground, do their job and trust the guy standing next to you,” said North Bergen's Naz Nwadike. “We're going to play hard no matter what the score is.”

Just from the crowd alone it was evident right from the opening tap that the game would feel more like a state sectional final game than a regular-season contest played early in February.

Justin Glover scored 13 points for Hudson Catholic, which fell to 13-6 on the season.

There were plenty of nerves and it showed in the opening stanza with both teams struggling to get into an offensive flow. Paulino picked up his second foul just three minutes into the game to leave North Bergen at a big size disadvantage. Senior Hugo Guzman and Naz Nwadike picked up the slack by providing solid minutes on the defensive end, but the Bruins were still looking for someone to step up and hit shots.

Despite being face-guarded for most of the game North Bergen three-point sniper Eli Camacho showed what a weapon he can be when he gets enough room to get his shot off. He nailed consecutive three-pointers to put North Bergen ahead before his third long-range bomb of the second quarter gave the Bruins a 22-17 halftime lead.

Playing without their leading scorer Zion Cruz, the Hawks could not find any type of rhythm throughout the first half. That all changed in the third quarter with threes by Justin Glover and Isaiah Griffin along with a basket inside from Xavion Baker-Miller on the Hawks' first three possessions of the second half. After scoring just 17 points in the first half they needed less than a minute to go on an 8-0 run and grab a lead that grew to six by early in the fourth quarter.

The lead was still six in the final minutes of regulation when the momentum changed on one play. It looked like the Hawks might get a steal on a full-court press but instead it turned into a three from the corner by Camacho to trim the lead to one. The Bruins pulled in front and needed just one last stop to come out with a win. It looked like they got it when Paulino stepped in to take a textbook charge on a drive by Phil Brown.  However, the call was a block and it proved to be a double whammy for North Bergen.

Francisco Paulino battled foul trouble, but still made an impact inside for North Bergen.

Not only did Paulino foul out, but Brown knocked down both free throws with 10 seconds left to tie the game at 42 as the teams needed an extra four minutes of action to decide a winner.

“You're going to face tough situations on the court, it's about how you deal with them,” said North Bergen head coach Kevin Bianco. “Officials aren't a reason why a team wins or loses. If we shot better from the free throw line during the game we wouldn't even be in that situation. Losing one of our interior players makes us go at things differently but it was really important that we stuck together. We had to stay in attack mode and keep fighting every possession.”

A pair of free-throws by both Kaydn Easy and Brown put the Hawks up four with just over two minutes remaining in the overtime session. Ellis started to warm up in the fourth quarter for North Bergen and kept the hot hand going right through overtime. The lefty scored on a driving lay-up, then followed it up with another drive for a basket and-one. He hit the ensuing free-throw to put the Bruins ahead. They did not ice the game though until a free-throw by Nwadike as North Bergen notched one the biggest regular-season wins in the history of the program.

“If we have the lane to the basket we have to take it and stay aggressive no matter what,” said Ellis. “We want to get to the foul line and knock down free-throws. Even down four we felt confident that we could get to the basket.”

Ellis led all players with 18 points, 12 of which came in the fourth quarter and overtime, for North Bergen (13-5). Camacho had 12 points and Paulino added 10.

Glover and Griffin tied for team-high honors with 13 points apiece for Hudson Catholic (13-6). Brown had 10 points and 10 rebounds for the Hawks. 

After splitting their first eight games of the season the Bruins have hit their stride at the right time. They have won nine of their last 10 games with their lone loss coming in overtime to St. Peter's Prep in a game where North Bergen held the lead in the final seconds of regulation. With the Hudson County Tournament right around the corner and the North 1, Group 4 state tournament soon to follow the Bruins are excited to see just how far they can take torrid stretch.

“We have to keep trusting each other and bring it at practice every day just like we did tonight,” said North Bergen point guard Jayden Williams. “We knew we could win games because the coaching staff puts us in position to do that, but now we have bigger goals. It's about executing on both ends, working as hard as we possibly can and just fighting like dogs every time we step on the court.”