Since the season's opening tip-off, virtually every follower of Garden State girls basketball predicted perennial powers Neptune
and Shabazz (Newark)
meeting in a winner-take-all Tournament of Championships title game.
But not everyone. Most certainly not Queen Tiye Jackson
, Trenton Catholic Academy's talented center and, fortune teller who saw Monday night's championship celebration coming since the dog days of last summer.
"I told my mom that I just feel we were going to win the whole thing," the Old Dominion-bound 6-1 senior said. "I felt it."
Although the Iron Mikes were typically overlooked elsewhere, they certainly justified Jackson's faith and vision with a remarkable run through the TOC bracket. After winning their first-round game in a rout over Rancocas Valley, Trenton Catholic Academy
trumped No. 6-ranked Shabazz in the semifinals, before a 54-49 triumph over No. 11 and defending champion Neptune Monday night at East Rutherford's Izod Center made TCA the first school in state history to have both its boys and girls basketball teams be crowned as New Jersey's best.
"These kids found out how to win," coach Khaliq Lewis El said.
After their latest and greatest win, Lewis El and his players told stories of the Iron Mikes' turnaround long before Jackson's clairvoyant vision. Long before Rutgers-bound star Briyona Canty
salted away Monday night's title win from the charity stripe and earned bragging rights over her future Scarlet Knight teammates, Neptune's Syessence Davis
and Shakena Richardson
, she and her teammates needed to mold their precocious talents into a more team-oriented brand of ball.
Although the Iron Mikes captured the Non-Public B title in 2008, Richmond-bound senior guard Miah Register
recalled thinking, "We're pretty smart players, but we couldn't channel that into a real game situation." After bowing out in the TOC, Canty and Register were part of a team that regressed as sophomores.
"We never let up," Register said. "We might have had some really bad times, but we capitalized on everything."
Easy as it is to view last season's Non-Public B title and subsequent trip to the TOC as a resurgence, though, Trenton Catholic arrived under the radar this season. In midseason losses to Neptune (47-44), Shabazz (55-46) and Non-Public A champion St. John Vianney (57-50), however, the Iron Mikes learned lessons applicable to their freshly completed postseason sprint.
"They were all losses by less than 10 points. Not one loss on our record was by more than nine points," Lewis El said. "We told these girls that every other team had been blown out at some point except for Shabazz."
Trenton Catholic changed that last Thursday, blitzing Shabazz early en route to a 24-point lead before holding off the previously undefeated juggernaut for a 54-44 victory in the TOC semifinals. While the Iron Mikes earned their opportunity to celebrate a program redefining victory, Register recalled thinking, "We knew it wasn't finished. We couldn't just come to the championship and take it. It was ours."
And sure enough, the Iron Mikes overcame opening-minute jitters to stun Neptune with a big first-half surge. Trenton Catholic led by 14 a couple of times before the Scarlet Fliers made their last-gasp run in response, pulling within one three times in the fourth quarter before Canty, a McDonald's All-American, went 7-for-8 from the foul line over the final 50.7 seconds.
"I wouldn't want it any other way then how it went," Canty said. "Hard work pays off."
It paid off in a championship celebration on the Izod Center floor Monday night, fulfilling Jackson's vision and capping a remarkable for the girls of Trenton Catholic.
"This crew was special. Really, really special," said Lewis El. "We had our battles to get them to buy into what we wanted them to do. But overall, good kids. The cream rises to the top, that's what I told them. I told them at the beginning of the year we might have three or four losses, but we'll be right in the thick of things. And that's the way things turned out."