S.J. Invitational continues to grow

Posted: February 09, 2012

It's perhaps the greatest testament to the young tournament.

Days before its Elite 8, area girls' basketball coaches and players seem to agree that the 20-team South Jersey Invitational Basketball Tournament is still in its infancy.

"I think it's impressive how successful it's been in just three years," Rancocas Valley coach Anthony Corrado said of the tournament that began last week and will play its Elite 8 games (yet to be decided) Saturday and Sunday at Kingsway.

"It's run really well, and it keeps growing every year. I think it's a great thing. And if more and more South Jersey teams continue to buy into it, which I expect will happen, it could really be a way to crown a true South Jersey champion."

The future of the SJIBT looks increasingly like that of the Coaches Tournament in soccer or the Carpenter Cup in baseball. Like those competitions, tournament director Mike Hallahan sees the SJIBT title evolving into the area's crown jewel, a prize just a notch below a state title.

In many ways, it already has reached that point. Nine of the field's 20 teams have made appearances in The Inquirer's South Jersey rankings this season. The current top three teams - No. 1 Rancocas Valley, No. 2 Willingboro, and No. 3 Delran - are the top three seeds in the tournament.

The field is already set to expand to 24 next season. And, more practically, coaches and players look at the SJIBT as something of a dress rehearsal for the state tournament, a gauge of where their team is less than a month before the state playoffs.

"Being in that tournament last year, in front of a packed gym, against quality opponents in that one-and-done-type atmosphere, helped prepare us for the playoffs, no question," said Corrado, whose Red Devils won last year's SJIBT before winning the state Group 4 title.

"It's always a great atmosphere, the crowds are always into it, and the whole idea really lends itself to this sport. When you have a field of quality teams in basketball, usually any team can win on a given night."

Corrado sees the tournament as a positive not just for his team, but also for all of South Jersey girls' basketball - particularly if it eventually lands the likes of the Cape-Atlantic teams, which Hallahan said have been unable to enter because of scheduling restrictions. Teams in the Lenape School District are also conspicuously absent from the brackets.

But for Hallahan, that's just part of the maturation of a tournament that already has been overwhelmingly successful.

"We're fortunate that many of the best teams have bought into the tournament and are participating, and we expect that list to keep growing," Hallahan said. "I am very proud of what the SJIBT has become and what it has a chance to become."

Said Delran coach Pete Miles: "I think there's genuine interest. People around the area really enjoy it. Personally, I think the tournament is great. And it's a nice accomplishment for a team to win the title."

Right now, much of the interest surrounding the games is on Miles' Bears, particularly on the prospect of them playing No. 1 Rancocas Valley for the third time this season. Delran gave RV all it could handle in two close losses this season. The two could meet Feb. 17 in the Final Four.

"It'd be nice to have one more chance to play a team like RV or Willingboro," Delran forward Aliyah Murray said. "But even though we would love to play RV again, one of the best parts of the tournament is playing other teams that we don't normally see.

"Every game is going to be a challenge. But it's something we look forward to."

Three-point contest. Once again, well more than 100 players from dozens of South Jersey teams will compete in the SJIBT three-point competition.

Camden Catholic senior Kelsey Kilpatrick will return to defend her title. Also back will be last year's runner-up, Delran senior Taylor Umbrell.

The competition, for which every South Jersey team can enter two players, consists of four racks of six balls, which are set up around the three-point arc. Each made three-pointer is worth a point, and the final ball on each rack is worth a bonus point. There is also a half-court shot worth five points; that shot is taken after all the threes have been launched.

Kilpatrick won last year's contest with 18 points in the final round. Umbrell finished with 14.

But the highlight of last year's three-point shootout happened in the second round, when then-senior Kristina Reiter, of Gloucester Catholic, hit a jaw-dropping 21 of 22 three-pointers after missing her first two shots.

The first round of the tournament will take place this weekend, between games and during halftime of the Elite 8 at Kingsway. The top eight performers will shoot during next Friday's SJIBT Final Four at Kingsway. Finally, the top four shooters will vie for the title during Championship Sunday at Kingsway on Feb. 19.

Unfortunately for shooters such as Reiter, points do not roll over from round to round.

Contact Chris Melchiorre at rallysports@phillynews.com.

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