By ANTHONY SPAULDING
Director of Communications
Pope John XXIII Regional High School
SPARTA — The Pope John XXIII Regional High School boys basketball team has had its ups and downs this season.
On Wednesday night, the Lions picked themselves back up in a big way by posting a dominant 89-36 victory over Mount Olive in a NJAC American Division game at Pope John XXIII Regional High School, five days after dropping their first division game in almost four years.
Senior point guard Aaron Clarke and junior guard Eddie Davis led the way for the Lions, scoring 26 points apiece. Diandre South chipped in 13 points and Tahji Hooks added 10 to give the Lions four players in double figures while helping the squad improve to 2-1 in American Division play and 6-5 on the year.
“This was good for us to bounce back,” Pope John head coach Vincent Johnson said. “That (Jefferson loss) was the first time we lost since 2014. We wanted to make sure we got back up on the horse again and make sure it didn’t happen again. We did a good job of that tonight.”
The Lions entered unfamiliar territory on Wednesday night when it came to facing a divisional opponent, as they were coming off a 77-66 loss to Jefferson, which snapped their 28-game winning streak against American Division foes. Prior to that divisional game, the last loss in league play for the Lions was a 44-42 contest against crosstown rival Sparta on Feb. 6, 2014 at Sparta High School.
Needless to say, the Lions knew they had to rebound against Mount Olive — a team that was looking for its first American Division win and only second victory on the year — if they wanted to stay in the division race, which Sparta currently leads at 3-0. In order to do that, they had to rely on the experiences they went through the first couple weeks of season when they played tough against some of the best teams in the state in consensus No. 1 Hudson Catholic, Paterson Kennedy, Union Catholic, Rutgers Prep and Wayne Hills.
“We have to come out and play hard every night,” Clarke said. “We can’t take any nights off. The good teams do not take any nights off.”
“What we learned from all of this was that no matter how high or low the competition is, we have to play our game,” Davis said. “We can’t let a team change our game and affect our confidence.”
The Lions were certainly dialed-in against Mount Olive, as they jumped out to a 28-4 first-quarter lead against the Marauders. A big reason the Lions raced out to such a big lead was because of their defense, which forced nine turnovers — five of which came on steals — and sparked the offense by allowing it to score eight of their 28 points in transition.
"It was a great defensive performance in that quarter,” said Clarke, who had eight of 17 first-half points in the quarter. “That led to our offense and allowed us to play at our pace.”
Then after a second quarter in which the Marauders ended up out-scoring them by a 18-15 margin to make it a 43-22 Pope John lead at halftime, the Lions caught fire in the third quarter, as they went on a 17-5 run in the first five minutes of the frame to take a commanding 60-27 lead. Clarke highlighted the run by scoring his final nine points of the game, six coming on back-to-back three-pointers, and Davis added two of his eight points in the quarter on a layup following one of his team-high four steals for the game.
“The first and third quarters, especially the first couple minutes of each, are really big for the team,” Clarke said. “We try to keep up our intensity, and we did that.”
Johnson loved the way his Lions were able to play stout defense, which finished the game by limiting the Marauders to six points in the fourth quarter and forcing them into 18 turnovers overall.
“We stressed attention to detail and playing defense at a high level,” Johnson said. “We didn’t do that last Friday night, but this performance is where we can build on it going forward.”
The Lions will try to keep getting better on Friday night when they take on Blair Academy at Blair Academy, the first of four straight non-American Division games. Their next American Division clash will be on Jan. 22 when they host division leader Sparta.
Pope John 89, Mount Olive 36
MO 4 18 8 6 — 36
PJ 28 15 21 25 — 89
Mount Olive: Liam Anderson 13, Ryan Hawk 5, Evan Kelson 5, Zack Richarson 4, Zach Mullen 3, Lance Johnson 2, Essex Deberry 2, Cameron Mendler 2
Pope John: Aaron Clarke 26, Eddie Davis 26, Diandre South 13, Tahji Hooks 10, Gavin Flowers 5, John Grinthal 4, Mike Piwko 3, Francisco Paulino 2
Records: Mount Olive 1-9, Pope John 6-5