In the land of pork roll and Bruce Springsteen, basketball has emerged as New Jersey’s greatest byproduct this March.
Cinderella has gone across the river to the Jersey side to reside as a Jersey Girl this year.
Fairleigh Dickinson and Princeton this year. Saint Peter’s last year. We are living in a Jersey basketball renaissance that doesn’t even include the state’s best-known programs, Seton Hall and Rutgers.
“You love to see it,” said Alabama guard and Jersey native Jaden Quinerly. “Hey, basketball needs New Jersey. Ask them. I wear the hoodie every freakin’ day, ‘Basketball needs New Jersey.’”
Princeton kicked off the Jersey March takeover when the Tigers stunned No. 2 seed Arizona, a popular Final Four pick, on their way to a Sweet 16 berth Saturday. Then it was Fairleigh Dickinson becoming only the second No. 16 seed ever to knock out a No. 1 when it beat Purdue Friday night. Even New Jerseyans might need help correctly guessing where FDU is located in the Garden State. All occurred in the afterglow of Saint Peter’s magical run to the Elite Eight last season, the first-ever 15-seed to do so.
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“Jersey is just different in March,” said Jahvon Quinerly, Jaden’s older brother, after Alabama’s 73-51 win over Maryland to advance to the Sweet 16.
Quinerly might as well have been talking about himself. The Hudson Catholic graduate was terrific against the Terrapins, scoring a game-high 22 points to secure Alabama’s place in the Sweet 16. March brings out the best in the tough-nosed Jersey guard, who seems to relish the opportunity and pressure of playing in the NCAA Tournament. “March JQ,” as his teammates call him, has been locked in this month after struggling at times this season getting over an ACL injury last March.
He’s averaging 19 points per game over his last three games – he had 22 in an SEC tournament title win over Texas A&M – and looks as comfortable on the floor as he has in a long time. With Alabama star Brandon Miller slowed down a bit with a groin injury, Quinerly took over at times and delivered four of Alabama’s only six made three-pointers against a Maryland defense that gave the Crimson Tide some early problems on the perimeter. With two No. 1 seeds already knocked out of the tournament and Houston struggling before pulling away against a feisty Auburn squad, Quinerly had an answer every time it looked like Maryland might hang around.
Maryland coach Kevin Willard, who started recruiting Jahvon Quinerly when he was just a ninth-grader, noticed JQ’s Hudson Catholic swagger back on the court this week when I asked him how he’s seen the guard develop.
“I probably watched more high school games of Javhon Quinerly than I have anybody else. To see him turn into the player he’s turning into and to see what he went through early in his college career and now see him blossoming and having confidence,” said Willard, who spent 12 seasons as Seton Hall’s head coach. “He’s got the swagger he had in high school back. To be perfectly honest with you, he killed us tonight but I’m really happy for Javhon Quinerly. He’s a terrific young man.”
Alabama will join Princeton in Louisville for the Sweet 16. Princeton is the first Ivy League school to make the Sweet 16 in more than a decade and will play the winner of Baylor and Creighton, who played late Sunday. Fairleigh Dickinson had its shot to join the club later Sunday when it took on Florida Atlantic. Miami and Connecticut, led by former Jersey stars Isaiah Wong and Adama Sanogo, respectively, had a chance to punch their ticket, too.
“It’s great to see those types of teams coming out of New Jersey,” Jaden Quinerly said. “Basketball out of New Jersey just comes with an edge. I think you could’ve seen that tonight.”
Fans across America have seen that this March. From the Jersey-based schools to the Jersey natives taking over games, this is Jersey’s moment.
And on the nation’s best team it was a Jersey native leading the way to make sure Alabama danced for at least one more weekend.