The Phillipsburg High School boys basketball team’s season has been a grind.
After starting the Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex tournament with a 1-13 record as the 13th seed, it looks like the grind is paying off.
Phillipsburg defeated fifth-seeded North Hunterdon 62-57 on Saturday afternoon in the H/W/S quarterfinals.
The Stateliners (5-16) advance to visit top-seeded Hackettstown, a 59-27 winner over Delaware Valley, in the semifinals Feb. 22.
“It means everything, we’ve been working all season. Grinding every practice, getting better every day as a team,” Phillipsburg junior Julian Couto said. “We’ve been grinding in all of our practices. We’re a good team and we’ve been facing really tough opponents, but we’re starting to make a run in this tournament.”
Couto was part of a concerted effort by the Stateliners’ guards to slow down Lions leading scorer Wes Reinagel. The senior scored 16 of North Hunterdon’s 21 first-half points, knocking down four shots from beyond the arc.
Phillipsburg coach Jerry Lloyd knew his defense needed to change, despite leading 28-21 at half.
“We decided to go diamond-and-one on him. (Reinagel)’s a very good player, he has the capability of carrying a team,” Lloyd said. “We thought if we did our best to take him out of the game, we’d have our best chance to win. I thought our guys that played him did a great job in the second half.”
Phillipsburg rotated several guards to harass Reinagel throughout the third quarter and did not allow him to have a 3-point attempt until the final 90 seconds of the game.
“(Reinagel) is a quick kid; he can get off a shot within a second,” Couto said. “I just had to grind and follow him everywhere. Just being aggressive is really a big key to it all.”
Reinagel led North Hunterdon (8-13) with 30 points, but was just one of four Lions to get on the scoreboard.
On the other end of the floor, Phillipsburg played patient half-court offense and spread the floor to neutralize the Lions’ press.
“Our guards have gotten better at handling pressure. It’s something that we’ve talked to them about,” Lloyd said. “To their credit, they’ve worked on it. We thought if we were able to spread North out and handle the pressure, we’d be able to get Jeremy (Abbott) some easy shots.”
The senior forward scored eight of his 14 points in the first half, all of which came in the paint.
“Once my teammates get past their guy up top, they do a great job dishing the ball down to me. I just finish what they get to me,” Abbott said.
A 3-pointer from Jacob Takacs with 2:10 left in the first quarter gave the Stateliners a 9-6 lead, and they stayed in front for the remainder of the game.
Takacs left the game early in the second quarter after falling to the floor without anyone around him. The senior got to his feet a few minutes later and left the court. Lloyd didn’t have an update following the game.
Playing with a double-digit lead throughout most of the second half provided a break for the Stateliners, who had multiple possessions go close to or over a minute long.
“Mike (Gomez), Julian, (Colin Domzalski) and (Josh) Borelli; all of our guards played extremely well today and handled (North)’s traps,” Lloyd said. “Knowing we were shorthanded even before Jacob went out, we wanted to limit the amount of possessions we played on defense. One way you can do that is by controlling the ball on offense.”
Sophomore guard Josh Borelli paced Phillipsburg with 16 points and fellow guard Colin Domzalski added 15.
Phillipsburg, which travels to rival Easton on Monday morning, is one victory away from reaching the H/W/S final for the second straight year.
“It’s a great team win. I can’t express how proud I am of these guys. It’s really awesome,” Lloyd said. “I thought we played a really tough schedule early on that got us battle-tested for this tournament … Now, they’re starting to reap some rewards out of it.”
Desmond Boyle may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @DesJBoyle. Find Lehigh Valley high school sports on Facebook.