The man they used to call 'Karl Towns Jr.'
By JON ALBA
College Contributor Network
I can use the word "man," but some may argue he's more of a "kid." The night I saw "Karl-Anthony" though, he single-handedly separated the men from the boys.
Karl-Anthony Towns is a national figure these days. He's glorified every few days now as the NCAA Tournament trudges along. In the madness that is March, he is a constant. A perennial star, a near-lock to be an NBA draft lottery pick, a superstar waiting to be. And Saturday night in Kentucky's 68-66 win against Notre Dame, he had his shining moment.
With a spot in the Final Four on the line, Towns went from being just another excelling Wildcat to the life-support of Kentucky's season. His 25 points included a perfect 8-for-8 line from the field in the second half. At just 19 years old, Towns is among the younger stars in the game, and had questions surrounding his maturity entering the postseason.
"Now he's a man," Andrew Harrison told reporters after Saturday's win against Notre Dame. Karl-Anthony had grown up.
But on Dec. 20, 2013, a "kid" named Karl Towns Jr. laced up in what would be his final time visiting East Brunswick High School in New Jersey. His St. Joseph's Hawks were the No. 1-ranked team in the state in the Star-Ledger Top 20 poll, with four future Division I stars on their roster. I was fortunate enough to be on the broadcast call for the local television station.
While it may not be Duke/UNC, to those in Central New Jersey, East Brunswick/St. Joe's isn't far behind. Each year, the schools separated by Route 1 are guaranteed at least two matchups, though recent years have proven to produce postseason showdowns. This was the season opener, and the first time the two had squared off since an epic double-overtime confrontation on the floor of Rutgers' RAC that saw Towns Jr. & Co. squeak away with a 66-63 win to snag the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament Championship. It may have been the greatest conference tournament final in league history.
Unlike St. Joe's, the Bears of East Brunswick lost a large number of seniors from that game, two to Division I schools. With names like Kentucky and Canisius in the back pockets of the Hawks, there was no denying the enormity of the hill EB would have had to climb to upset the best team in the state.
I had done my preparation on Towns Jr. Ever since he made headlines by announcing he would commit to Kentucky no more than a month after getting his driver's license, there was a certain buzz anytime he stepped onto a gym floor. For a school whose last huge star to make headlines (for better or for worse) was Andrew Bynum, Towns Jr. stood as St. Joe's guiding light into a new era of program reputation. He was the next big thing.
When Towns Jr. did step on the court, that buzz became an aura. His 7-foot stature towered over the other 16-18-year-olds, and the heckling from East Brunswick's student section, "The Bear Den," became borderline malicious. The only problem for those fans was the game would be as well.
East Brunswick contained Towns Jr. the best it could in the early goings, limiting his impact inside and forcing him to make shots amidst some foul trouble. It was the only way most high school teams could only hope to take him out of the equation: hope his brute strength and physicality could become his own worst enemy. While the Hawks led by nine at the half, the Bears had largely accomplished this.
The first half was more or less the best East Brunswick could have wished to happened heading into the game. But the second half would be a microcosm of the artist formerly known as "Towns Jr." and his Kentucky career thus far.
East Brunswick opened up the half outscoring St. Joe's 14-6 in the third quarter, leaving a chance that the state's best team could go down in an act of redemption to start the season. But with the Hawks trailing by six with 50 seconds to go, a game that felt like it was part of March Madness turned into straight chaos.
Thank Towns for that.
St. Joseph's Wade Baldwin, another one of its biggest threats with no ceiling for his talent, nailed a fadeaway three to cut the deficit to a single possession. East Brunswick, overmatched by the full court pressure from St. Joe's, then turned the ball over on the inbounds pass.
With under 30 seconds on the clock, there was only one man who would be primed to take the big time shot.
"Now, Karl Towns Jr. is a three-point threat," I said to my partner on the broadcast, despite the fact the big man hadn't sunk a shot behind the perimeter all night. But like Mariano Rivera in the postseason, there was no doubt the Hawks would go to their closer for the big shot.
Towns Jr. received the pass from the baseline behind the arc. It got worked around back to Baldwin, as the future Wildcat set him a pick. He then rolled right, ready to corral the pass.
"Baldwin, thinks about the three, pumps it out to Towns Jr., for the tie..."
The elongated inflection on "tie" slurred out into my headset as Towns Jr., soon to be a product of John Calipari, took a shot from what seemed to be Lexington, Kentucky.
"He got it!"
I knew of the legend of Karl Towns Jr. Now, I had lived it. With the same emphasis in which he hit the shot, I punched the words: "Karl Towns Jr.! The three-point shot to tie up the game!"
Much like the GMC Championship Game in which he broke East Brunswick hearts with 21 points, he had done it again. With 21 points.
The Hawks would ultimately force another Bears turnover, and win the game on a layup with time expiring by the Canisius-bound Raven Owen. The "Bear Den" was silenced, as the Hawks mobbed the court in realization of the events that had transpired. Towns Jr. rallied the St. Joe's fans in attendance, throwing and waving his arms in the air in form of triumph.
Much like Kentucky's game against Notre Dame Saturday, Towns was not the deciding factor, but the X-factor. While names like Baldwin and Owen play instrumental into this particular story in the same way Aaron and Andrew Harrison did in the closing seconds Saturday, Towns Jr. made it all possible. And like transition from "Jr." to a hyphen, the budding star from a private school in Metuchen has transitioned to a different level of player.
Now, only the NBA awaits. And he may have a ring on his finger when he gets there.
Watch the St. Joseph's/East Brunswick game below, courtesy of East Brunswick Television.
Jon Alba is a senior at Quinnipiac University. There he serves as general manager of the school's television station, Q30 Television. Find more of his work on his official website. Follow him on Twitter: @JonAlbaSFC.