Matured and motivated, Kentucky commit Isaiah Briscoe eyes T of C redemption

Dave Boff was ready to let his players go.

The Roselle Catholic coach was gassing his team in an early December practice with dreaded "seventeens," a conditioning drill requiring players to touch each sideline 17 times in 60 seconds. By the fourth repetition, one of the team's centers still couldn't get that final touch.

Seeing his team was spent, Boff called it a day. He expected his players to bolt for the locker room.

Instead, he got an objection. Isaiah Briscoe wouldn’t let his teammates go, insisting they give it one more run. He walked across the court to stand next to his struggling teammate and ran the drill with him, putting a hand on his back to pace him.

“Isaiah basically just grabbed him around the waist and dragged a 6-foot-10 kid across the finish line at the last second,” Boff said. “It was the single greatest thing I’ve ever seen in a high school practice.”

Several things became clear to Boff in that moment. Briscoe was no longer “Boogie,” the chubby kid who could dribble. A summer grinding in the gym and taking over the AAU circuit hadn’t just turned him into the best athlete on the floor and the country’s top point guard according to ESPN, Rivals.com and 247Sports.com. It had turned him into a leader.

Briscoe's resume is illustrious. Two Prep A titles with St. Benedict's. The Non-Public B title and a First Team All-State selection with Roselle Catholic last season. The 2015 Nike Peach Jam title and MVP. More than 2,000 career points. McDonald's All American. A scholarship waiting at Kentucky.

But Briscoe believes his high school career won’t be complete without the most coveted award in New Jersey high school basketball  — a Tournament of Champions trophy.

He was a missed shot away from making it to the T of C title game last season.

This year?

“I don’t want that feeling," Briscoe said. "I don’t want to say, ‘We should have, we could have.’ I just want to take it all.”

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After starting as a freshman, Briscoe averaged 15.7 points and 4.2 assists as a sophomore at St. Benedict's, reaching the ESPN National High School Invitational final. He was no longer a promising youngster when he got to Roselle for his junior season — he was a known commodity. Top colleges were after him, and Rivals.com ranked him No. 15 in the class of 2015. Roselle Catholic had just won the T of C, and a repeat seemed possible.

But the transition in his first season wasn't easy. Briscoe had lost only three games in two years at Benedict's. A 22-point drubbing at the hands of Patrick School in the Union County Tournament semifinals was the ninth loss of the season. The T of C looked like a pipe dream.

It would have been easy for the Lions give up on the season at that point. But Briscoe wouldn't let them.

“He didn’t come in after the St. Pat’s game like, ‘Oh, the season’s over,’” Boff said. “He came in with an attitude of, ‘It’s time to start worrying about winning a state championship.’”

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Everything clicked from that point on. A refocused Briscoe led Roselle Catholic though its sectional bracket, including redemption against Patrick School in the sectional final.

Briscoe had 24 points, eight rebounds and five assists in topping St. Anthony in the Non-Public B final, highlighted by what might be Briscoe's signature play so far — a drive to split two defenders and finish with a reverse layup with 4:18 to go.

“That’s a play that probably five kids in the country could make,” Boff said. “On that stage, in that environment, at that moment, he might be the only kid. That was just unbelievable.”

Then came another pivotal moment, two games later in the T of C semifinals against Newark East Side. With the score tied in the final minute, Briscoe had the ball in his hands. A quick move and a jumper from the top of the key.

A good look. But it didn’t fall.

Then a controversial call set up a game-winning free throw for East Side. The Roselle Catholic locker room was furious about the call after the game, but Briscoe put an end to that. He refused to let his teammates blame the officials. He put the blame on himself.

“If I had made the shot, we would have won, pretty much,” Briscoe said. “So as a leader of the team, I take responsibility.”

Just four weeks earlier, Briscoe probably would have blamed the referee. But humbled by defeats and hungry for victory, he had matured into his role.

“The way he handled the end of the East Side game and the disappointment let me know that this year we were going to be able to have a special season,” Boff said. “He handled the loss like a true leader.”

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Heading into last summer, Briscoe knew he had to do more to refine his game. He began an intense cross-training regimen including boxing, cycling and yoga. When he took the AAU court with N.J. Playaz, he was a new player set on becoming a true point guard.

He’s been that player all season, and he’s ready to be that player now.

“I’ve matured, I’m more poised. I pick my spots better. I’m a much better jump-shooter,” Briscoe said. “I feel lighter. I’ve been eating right, and I just feel like a totally different player.”

Briscoe is far from a finished product. But the progress he has made is obvious, and the country has taken notice — including his future coach.

“He’s exactly what we thought — great with the ball, good teammate,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “He’s got a ways to go, but he’s going to be good.”

How good? Briscoe isn’t shy about aspiring to the NBA to join his cousin, St. Patrick’s legend Kyrie Irving. He’s already featured high in NBA mock drafts.

But as he is now, Briscoe is arguably the best player in the state on one of New Jersey’s top teams — a favorite to win the T of C. His chance to complete his high school resume, and his chance to lead the way, is coming.

Boff can see it.

“End of a T of C game, ball in Isaiah Briscoe’s hands, I know he’s going to get a great shot for himself or somebody else,” he said. "And I would expect us to win the basketball game.”

Jeremy Schneider may be reached at jschneider@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @J_Schneider. Find NJ.com on Facebook.