He is 6 feet tall and jumps center.
He is no threat from three-point range. He is an average ballhandler and a mediocre foul shooter.
He is a football player, first and foremost.
There’s a long list of reasons that Nick Cartwright-Atkins shouldn’t be a dominant player on the basketball court, especially deep in the state tournament.
But there’s one good explanation why an undersized athlete whose college future is on the football field has led an improbable team of surprising standouts from Moorestown to the semifinals of the Tournament of Champions.
“He’s an absolute warrior,” Moorestown senior guard Jagger Zrada said.
Cartwright-Atkins has led Moorestown to its first state title in 60 years as well as a victory over higher-seeded Haddonfield in the T of C quarterfinals Wednesday night at Toms River North.
On Friday night, Cartwright-Atkins and the Quakers will face their biggest challenge in a semifinal game against top-seeded Ranney School, the No. 10 team in the country in MaxPreps’ top-25 rankings.
“Underdogs, we love it,” Cartwright-Atkins said.
Moorestown is an unlikely state champion for this reason: There might not be an athlete on the roster who will play college basketball.
Not just NCAA Division I basketball. College basketball, period.
“None of these guys are going to play basketball in college,” Moorestown coach Shawn Anstey said after his team’s 60-59 victory over Haddonfield. “Go figure.”
Moorestown is a basketball team filled with multisport athletes. Senior guard Vinnie Caprarola plays soccer and lacrosse. Senior guard Akhil Giri will golf at Colgate. Senior forward Brian McMonagle was the Quakers’ quarterback in football and will play baseball at Boston College.
Junior forward Kevin Muhic is a soccer goalie. Junior guard Evan Francisco is a baseball player.
Zrada, who was 7-for-8 from three-point range vs, Haddonfield, is a basketball-only guy who probably could play at the NCAA Division III level. But he plans to attend a large university and likely participate in club or intramural basketball.
Cartwright-Atkins epitomizes the Quakers. He has signed to play football at Wagner University, where he projects as a wide receiver.
Every game in the state tournament has potentially been the last of his basketball career. He’s played like something precious has been on the line.
“I put my heart into this team,” Cartwright-Atkins said. “I love these guys. Whatever it takes, that’s been the motto.”
Cartwright-Atkins scored 13 points with nine rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks vs. Haddonfield. He made the hustle play of the game, hitting the floor during a scramble and shoveling the basketball to Zrada, who buried a three-pointer.
“He got every loose ball,” Haddonfield coach Paul Wiedeman said.
Cartwright-Atkins has been at his best in the state tournament. He went for 21 points and 13 rebounds against Delsea. He had 23 points with 11 rebounds against Wall. He had 12 points with 13 rebounds against Ramapo.
“He’s been the best player on the court this whole entire playoff run,” Anstey said. “Nick has been the catalyst to this team. For him to do what he’s doing, at his size, it’s just unreal.”
The statistics don’t tell the whole story. Cartwright-Atkins plays with an upbeat competitiveness — the Moorestown coaches are still marveling at his dancing in the center circle before the opening tap vs. Ramapo’s 6-foot-11 Neal Quinn in the state final — that seems to rub off on his teammates.
“He’s the energy of our team,” Jagger said.
Cartwright-Atkins and the Quakers will be heavy underdogs against a Ranney team that features Villanova recruit Bryan Antoine and Florida recruit Scottie Lewis.
But it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him dancing in the circle again in anticipation of the challenge.
“Once he steps on that court, he thinks everybody is the same size that he is,” Anstey said.
At RWJ Barnabas Arena at Toms River North High School
Moorestown (28-5) vs. Ranney (29-3), Friday at 7 p.m.
Seeds: Moorestown is the No. 5. Ranney is the No. 1.
Next: The winner plays the winner of Friday’s 5:30 p.m. game between No. 3 seed Newark East Side and No. 2 seed Bergen Catholic in the championship game Sunday at 4 p.m. at Rutgers.
Moorestown’s tournament road: Beat Deptford 77-39; Delsea 71-48; Timber Creek 52-43; Mainland 61-43; Wall 64-44; Ramapo; Haddonfield 60-59.
Coach: Shawn Anstey.
Winning streak: 15.
Players to watch: Nick Cartwright-Atkins, 6-0 senior; Jagger Zrada, 5-8 senior; Vinnie Caprarola, 6-0 senior; Akhil Giri, 5-10 senior; Kevin Muhic, 6-3 junior; Evan Francisco, 6-2 junior; Brian McMonagle, 6-2 senior.
Ranney’s tournament road: Beat Timothy Christian 101-40; Trenton Catholic 68-54; Rutgers Prep 76-62; Wildwood Catholic 54-50 (OT); Roselle Catholic 56-50.
Coach: Tahj Holden.
Winning streak: 10.
Players to watch: Bryan Antoine, 6-5 senior; Scottie Lewis, 6-5 senior; Alex Klatsky, 6-2 senior; Phillip Wheeler, 6-7 junior.