Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
NORTH PHILADELPHIA — When Jalen Harper gets headed toward the rim, his St. Joe’s Prep teammates wait with suspense to see what will come next.
“It’s really fun because he’s so creative,” junior Tristen Guillouette said. “I don’t know if he’s going to dunk it. I don’t know if he’ll get an and-one. I don’t know if he’s just gonna lay the ball up real, real tough in two people’s faces. He’s definitely got a lot of tricks in his bag. When I see him get to the basket, my eyes kind of light up like, ‘What’s he gonna do?’”
Harper was in attack mode on Friday evening against Father Judge, piling up 13 points with a couple of those nifty finishes as one of five Hawks in double figures. The junior was joined by sophomore Jaron McKie (22), junior Matt Gorman (17), Guillouette (12) and sophomore Olin Chamberlain (11) as SJP used a strong start and finish to the second half to pull away for a 76-64 PCL victory over Father Judge.
“That’s the great part about this team and this season really,” Harper said. “Everybody just scores. Everybody does what they have to do. I think that’s a big contribution to our wins right now. We just have to keep doing that.”
St. Joe's Prep junior Jalen Harper, left, was one of five Hawks in double figures Friday in a win over Father Judge. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Friday’s PCL game was tight through two quarters, SJP (15-4, 8-2 PCL) leading 32-31 at half behind 13 first-half points from McKie. Gorman started the second half with back-to-back buckets. Harper added another and then McKie found Chamberlain twice with full-court outlet passes for easy layups. Suddenly the Hawks led Judge (8-8, 4-6), 43-31, less than three minutes into the third quarter after scoring 12 straight points.
SJP led 51-42 at the end of the third quarter. A three by Judge sophomore Kevair Kennedy, who led his team with 21 points, cut the lead to six. The Crusaders crept within five with 5:36 to play, but Gorman answered immediately with a three. After Judge junior Laquan Byrd (11 points) cut the lead to six one more time, the Hawks reeled off nine straight points to put the game away, going up 69-53. During the run, McKie scored back-to-back baskets, Guillouette swatted a shot and Harper had an and-one with a little under two minutes to play that was a knockout blow.
“That’s always been a trait,” Harper said. “My primary way of scoring is usually just going to the basket. Lately, I’ve been trying to work on my shot, and that’s been good. I just have to implement that more.”
He also added four boards and a steal to his statline in the victory.
“I feel like me, I score when I need to score, but most of the time I’m getting rebounds, playing defense because I’m the second tallest on the court most of the time on our team, so I just have to focus on getting rebounds,” Harper said. “And coach (Jason) Harrigan has been putting me with the ball lately, playing point guard, just running the offense. That’s my role right now.”
St. Joe's Prep junior Tristen Guillouette celebrates a basket Friday against Judge. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Harper was a starter for the Hawks last season as a sophomore averaging 6.5 ppg. He came into Friday as the team’s third leading scorer at 11.8 ppg behind McKie (17.1 ppg) and Guillouette (10.2 ppg) and also second in rebounding at 7.3 rpg.
His growth along with the development of several others is why the Hawks have made that jump from 12th place (2-11) to a team that’s in third place in the PCL with three league games left.
“I started last year, but I feel like I didn’t have as big a role last year,” Harper said. “That just comes from maturity.”
“We’re putting the ball in his hands more,” Guillouette said. “We’re putting the ball in his hands, we’re getting him in pick & roll and getting him downhill. That’s really what he does best, getting downhill, getting by defenders and playing defense. Him playing defense, he’s definitely stepped up with that. He’s guarding some of the best players on the other team.”
Harper, who lives in Uptown, and Guillouette, who lives in Willingboro, N.J. were workout partners this summer. They often worked out and then spent nights at each other’s houses, getting up for another workout the next day.
Guillouette, a 6-8 big man, has been on the D1 radar for a while. Harper started hearing from schools when Albany, St. Joe’s and Loyola-Maryland reached out after Philly Live in June. He said Albany was in touch this summer and Drexel came to an SJP open gym this fall.
The Great Danes extended an offer to him Jan. 3 via a phone call after practice. He said the interest from Drexel heated up after St. Joe’s Prep’s Jan. 6 victory over Archbishop Ryan when he stuffed the statsheet with 14 points, six assists, five rebounds, two blocks and two steals. The Dragons offered two weeks later when Drexel coach Zach Spiker was in attendance for the Hawks’ one-point win over Devon Prep on Jan. 20.
“I was excited. I was proud. I didn’t really know how to react to it at first,” Harper said. “It’s just my hard work and that’s just helped me.”
St. Joe's Prep sophomore Jaron McKie scored 22 points Friday in a win over Father Judge. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
He and Guillouette, who also has a Drexel offer, went and watched the Dragons upset College of Charleston together on Thursday night at the Daskadlakis Athletic Center.
“I’m definitely happy for him seeing all the hard work that me and him put in paying off for him,” Guillouette said.
The Hawks came into the 2022-23 season with some outside excitement after bringing almost everyone back from a young team a year ago, however, most probably thought SJP was a year away from making the leap to the upper echelon of the PCL.
That notion went out the window with wins over Archbishop Ryan and West Catholic earlier this season.
There’s still work to do though, and Harper and his teammates know their closing stretch is doubly important as they try to snag one of District 12’s three spots in the state Class 6A tournament — two PCL teams get a chance to compete for them — as well as set up a home playoff game for a chance at the Palestra.
Judge was the first 6A team in a stretch of three with Archbishop Wood coming up on Monday and Roman Catholic next Friday before finishing the PCL slate on Super Bowl Sunday at O’Hara. A win over Wood would lock up a top four spot in the league playoffs and secure one of the PCL’s top two 6A spots as well.
“That’s been a belief since we played West Philly our first game,” Harper said of getting to the Palestra. “We knew our goal was Palestra and we could do that. That’s what we’re trying to achieve right now.”