• Dan Russoman

Hammonton stuns St. Joseph

Smith’s late layup lifts Blue Devils past Wildcats


Kenny Smith (3) drives for a basket as Darryl McGraw (23) defends. (THG/Dan Russoman.To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

HAMMONTON—Kenny Smith’s baseline drive and layup with less than four seconds remaining in the game lifted Hammonton High School’s boys basketball team to a 43-41 victory against rival St. Joseph Academy last week.


The basket capped a thrilling back-and-forth game that saw the teams swap the lead several times in the final period.


“He [Smith] has been doing that all season for us,” Hammonton coach Joe Martino said.


Smith, a freshman guard, only hit one shot in the fourth quarter, but it was the one that mattered as Hammonton defeated St. Joe for the first time since 2015.


“They [St. Joe] beat us in overtime earlier this year and I told coach [Martino] that we weren’t losing to them twice in one season. It’s been a long time since we beat St. Joe, but we all knew we could do it,” Smith said.


With the game tied at 41 and less than 10 seconds remaining, Smith threw a pass to Erik Pabon in the corner. St. Joe immediately double teamed the senior guard, who was able to stay in bounds and send a pass back to Smith along the baseline. The freshman then drove in for a twisting layup that put the Blue Devils ahead for good.


“We drew up an inbounds play and I wasn’t supposed to pass it to the corner. I was supposed to hold it until there were eight seconds left, but I passed it to the corner and immediately regretted it. But [Pabon] was strong with the ball, threw it back, I had to run and get the ball and then just focus on the layup and finishing,” Smith said.


The shot sent a large Hammonton student section into a frenzy and left Martino with a big smile after the game.


“It wasn’t like we drew it up, but that’s just kids making plays. That’s what we did tonight. We had an injury to one of our best defensive players and one of our overall guys who pretty much doesn’t come out of the game, Tyler Lowe, and we had other guys come in with different roles. We had Ta’vonne Barber come in and it was his first game, he hasn’t played all year, so we had different guys step up in different positions, in this type of atmosphere, we’re just really proud of everybody. Everybody was in the game tonight. [John] Andaloro did a great job in the paint all night, altering shots, and Kenny Smith — what can I say? He steps up at the right time. The freshman bailed us out at the end with that drive to the basket,” Martino said.


Smith grabbed the attention with his game-winning shot, but Hammonton would not have been in the game without two key buckets from Pabon, who nailed a pair of fourth-quarter 3-pointers.


“He [Pabon] does that. He’s always ready. He knows he has to pull it when he gets the opportunity, and he did that tonight. He made some big shots. He’s always ready to shoot and he always shoots well in practice. We just tell him, when you get a look, especially against a trapping defense like they were, you didn’t know what they were going to do sometimes. They were mixing up their defenses well and they did a great job of keeping us off balanced all night. We knew if we had a shooter who gets a look in the corner or on a wing, sometimes you just have to take it,” Martino said.


Pabon gave credit to the coaching staff, including assistant Christian Mortellite.


“I can only thank Coach Mortellite, he always keeps my confidence up, tells me to keep shooting,” Pabon said.


“But it starts with defense, my energy is crazy. We just have to keep our energy up and stick together. My teammates helped me get all the confidence I needed,” he said.


The game was close throughout as St. Joe led 11-10 after the first quarter and 22-19 at the half. The Wildcats struggled against Hammonton’s zone, while St. Joe’s pressure caused problems for the Blue Devils throughout the game.


Trailing 30-29 to start the fourth quarter, Hammonton took the lead on a Barber layup, and Pabon’s 3-pointer put the Blue Devils up 34-30 before St. Joe fought back, taking a 36-34 lead on Arnaldo Rodriguez’s steal and layup with four minutes left in the game.


Another 3-pointer from Pabon put Hammonton up 41-39 with 2:05 remaining. Rodriguez converted two free throws with 1:52 left to tie the game, and after a Hammonton miss, it looked like St. Joe might play for the last shot. With 30 seconds to go, a drive to the basket came up short for the Wildcats and Hammonton called a timeout before setting up the game-winning sequence.


The win was a much-needed one for Hammonton, which is battling for a berth in the Cape Atlantic League playoffs.


“This is a really hard division. I think it’s the best division in South Jersey, team-for-team. I really mean that. Take the Olympic [Conference], whatever, our division is by far the toughest. We’re in battles every night. Our record is only 9-7 but I can tell you, I know we’ve lost some tough games at the end; we lost one to St. Joe earlier in the year at the end. But we have this opportunity, we beat Lower Cape May; now we’ve beaten St. Joe, we’ve gotten two in a row and we want to take that momentum into next week to try to get into the CAL Tournament. We’re not in yet. We’re just not. So, we have to fight next week. If we don’t win next week, we’re not going to get in. That’s just the way it’s working this year,” Martino said.


Hammonton’s players are confident that they can earn a berth in the CAL tourney.


“I feel like we can compete with any team in the CAL and even have a chance of winning (the CAL Tournament). We’ve played well against every team. We’re a strong team and we believe in each other. This gives us a big confidence boost. We came in off a win against Lower Cape May after losing about four straight, so this is a big confidence booster,” Smith said.


Despite the loss, St. Joe appears to have a CAL tournament bid locked up. That was little consolation for the Wildcats.


“They played better than us and they wanted it more. What else can I say? We didn’t play well tonight. I keep telling our kids that you can’t expect to just show up a win by 20 points every night,” St. Joseph coach Paul Rodio said.


While St. Joe left wounded, Hammonton was thrilled to notch a win against its rivals.


“This is great. We haven’t beaten them in six or seven years, so to beat them in my senior year is the greatest feeling in the world. We’re going to keep fighting and I promise you, we’ll get into the state playoffs and we’ll go on the biggest run. They won’t understand where we’re coming from,” Pabon said.