EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — There was some trepidation among Egg Harbor Township boys basketball fans on Thursday night as the Eagles are attempting to plug in five new starters on a team that went 28-6 last year and made it to the Group 4 state championship game. Freshman Jalen Bell — son of Eagles head coach Cameron Bell — put any fears to rest, at least after the season opener, as he went for a game-high 23 points in EHT’s convincing 68-48 win over St. Joseph Academy in our Bunting Family Pharmacy Game of the Week.
Bell hit five 3-pointers — including four in the second quarter — as EHT shook off an early deficit and raced out to a 41-28 halftime lead.
“Jalen Bell is ready,” said Eagles point guard Jake Karp. “He’s a young kid, but he has a bright future.”
Gone are the likes of generational players D.J. Germann and Jay-Nelly Reyes, but this young group of Eagles (EHT features just three seniors on its roster) are eager to make a name for themselves. Karp scored 14 points and had eight assists while Jay-Denn Reyes, Jay-Nelly’s younger brother, chipped in 10 points and eight rebounds.
EHT got contributions from up and down its lineup, as Bradley Smith added four points, 12 rebounds and a pair of steals while Jay Salsberry had six points, four rebounds, three assists, a block and two steals. Jayden Dixon, C.J. Ford and Justin Moore combined for 11 points and nine rebounds.
“We were looking to just come out strong. We lost a lot of kids from last year, obviously, but we still have hoopers on this team and we’re ready to play. We came out and did what we knew we could do. It’s our turn now, and we’ve been playing together all summer. I think we’ll be good,” Karp said. “Last year, the last home game we lost was to St. Joe’s, so we wanted to come out and get our get-back.”
“Last year, those guys played together for a while, and this year we have a new identity. Everybody’s doubting us this season, but we’re going to be good. We didn’t get too much playing time last year, but we had a really strong summer where a lot of us got a lot of experience, so I think we’ll be alright,” Smith added. “Once we go on a hot streak, it’s going to be tough to stop us. We all want to play together and we all want to win. We’re going to need each to keep everybody’s heads up and look to our seniors. It’s going to be tough to stop us.”
EHT was down 5-4 early but Karp and Bell hit threes to give the Eagles a 10-7 lead, and EHT never trailed again. Reyes scored back-to-back buckets late in the first as the Eagles closed out the quarter with a 19-11 advantage. That lead swelled in the second quarter as Bell came alive, nailing four 3-pointers, the last of which gave the Eagles a 41-25 lead with 1:20 to go before halftime.
“We wanted to take care of the basketball, attack the basket and have quality possessions. Those were the three things I had on the board for today,” coach Bell said. “What I liked about tonight was we were active on the defensive end. Offense comes and goes but defense has to always be there, and I think we have the makings of a pretty good defense, especially once we get a little more seasoning under us.”
EHT limited St. Joseph Academy to just six points in the third quarter as the Eagles’ lead reached 54-34 entering the fourth quarter.
“One thing about the guys this year is they practiced against all those great seniors last year, so they know what the pace and tempo is like. Even though they may not have played a bunch of minutes last year, they were getting a master class on pace, moving the ball and moving on to the next play,” coach Bell said. “The more these guys believe in themselves and believe and trust in the coaching staff — one thing we can do is we can get shots, but it’s trusting that we can pass up good shots for great shots. Once we truly, 100 percent buy into that, that’s when we’ll really take that next step. It’s early, the first game, so there’s a long way to go.”
Jalen Bell hit five shots from the field and also went 3-of-4 from the line while chipping in eight rebounds and a pair of steals. Not bad for a kid suiting up for his high school team for the first time.
“It’s fun, but it can be challenging at times,” coach Bell said of coaching his son. “He’s a freshman, so he thinks he knows more that he does. He’s a freshman who grew up in the gym, so he does know a lot — but he doesn’t know more than me. But it’s fun coaching him.
“It felt good (to hear his name called in the starting lineup), but it being opening night I was just concerned with Egg Harbor Township and could we get this win, and how we would play. I’m downplaying it, but it was pretty cool, for sure.”
WHAT’S NEXT: EHT vs. St. Augustine Prep on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Ocean City’s Tipoff Weekend at Ocean City High. St. Joseph Academy vs. Atlantic City on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Ocean City’s Tipoff Weekend.
Sully, as he’s known throughout South Jersey, began his newspaper career in 1995 and has worked for some of New Jersey’s top papers, including The Asbury Park Press and Press of Atlantic City, as a writer and editor. He’s earned several New Jersey Press Association awards and continues to produce high quality reporting, writing and photography.
A native of Ocean County, Sully played high school baseball at Lacey Township High and college baseball at Pfeiffer University in North Carolina. After a successful 15-year career in the newspaper business, Sully launched Glory Days Magazine in 2013 and for nearly a decade has been bringing fans outstanding and insightful coverage of high school sports throughout South Jersey.