By Mark Kitchin
The passing combination of Matt McHale to Aaron Fant has brought many magical moments for the Madison Dodgers over the years whether it was on the gridiron or the basketball court. On Friday, the duo nearly combined for one last miracle but luck ran out on the Dodgers.
Nelson Mendez scored 18 points to lead Ridgefield Park to a 54-53 triumph over Madison in a North 2, Group II semifinal contest in Madison.
Matt Gilbert scored 15 points, Jake Meister had 13 and Aaron Fant added 12 for the Dodgers which finished at 17-8.
It was a thrilling high school basketball game with plenty of end-to-end action; the type of contest befitting a tournament final.
A last-second shot would have made it perfect and Fant’s halfcourt attempt just before the buzzer was a capable effort since he got an open look and has hit those long range chances in the past. However, this time the ball went hard against the backboard and bounced off the front rim as the buzzer sounded.
“Coach drew it up in the huddle,’’ Fant said. “Gilbert was going to set a screen for Jake. I was going to cut in the middle and Matt threw it to me. I was going to have the option of throwing it out to them or just taking it. I took it and it almost went in.’’
It was a rough ending but one that didn’t take away from how much the Madison program has achieved the past couple of years with a strong group of seniors which will now move on to other things.
“This team’s character is really strong,’’ Fant said. “We never think we are out of a game. We have a lot of great players who can hit big shots, play defense and play hard every time. Our coach preaches us to be the toughest team and I thought we were a very tough team tonight.’’
Madison’s Aaron Fant drives past Ridgefield Park’s Ahmad Gamea in Friday’s state sectional semifinal.
Basketball can be a fickle game. On Wednesday it was a dramatic shot by Gilbert that helped the Dodgers advance past Newark Tech, 37-35. This time Madison was on the losing end.
“Basketball is not a perfect science,’’ Madison coach Bill Librera said. “We had that shot on Wednesday and that shot went down. That doesn’t mean that those kids are any less quality kids. It just means that it’s over with and that’s the finality of it.’’
The fourth quarter was as good as it gets when it comes to tournament basketball. It included a scintillating two-minute stretch in which both teams matched each other basket for long-range basket. When Ridgefield Park’s Ahmad Gamea knocked down a 3-pointer, Fant responded with his long-range bomb. When Gamea came up with another one from the right side of the arc it was Madison’s Mike Haughey who had the answer.
“It was just a great environment,’’ McHale said. “I love playing in those types of games. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Madison’s Jake Meister puts a fake on Ridgefield Park’s Nelson Mendez in the first quarter of Friday’s game.
After the basket barrage Madison still trailed 48-44 with 4:44 left in the game when Fant stripped an opponent and hit a layup, after the Scarlets hit a free throw, Haughey drained his third 3-pointer of the game to tie the game at 49.
Then Fant made a tremendous steal and drove the length of the floor before he was knocked down under the basket. Ridgefield Park was called on the intentional foul.
“He was pulling the ball out in front of me and I took a swipe at it,’’ Fant said.
Fant hit a free throw but nothing came of the Dodgers’ subsequent possession. Then Ridgefield Park’s Justin Pello hit his third 3-pointer of the game just outside of two minutes to make it a 52-50 Scarlet lead but then Fant wasted no time downing a 3-pointer of his own to make it 53-52 with 2:14 left.
It would be the Dodgers final basket of the season. Ridgefield Park’s Thomas Gerken hit a short bank shot with 1:29 left. The team’s exchanged scoreless possessions with Gamea’s free throw miss giving Madison a scoring opportunity in the waning seconds.
With 14 seconds left in regulation, the Dodgers set up a play that got Meister open for a runner from the left side but the ball bounced off the rim. Madison fouled Ridgefield Park’s Steven Owens and he missed a free throw attempt. The Dodgers got the ball out of the scramble and one of the Dodgers called a timeout – their last one with 3.2 seconds left. Librera would have preferred to get the ball past halfcourt before calling time, but the Dodgers were going to get off an open shot regardless.
“Our sideline out of bounds play was going to get Aaron the ball at the top of the key anyway,’’ Librera said. “We ran it last year against Chatham. We tried to create a little traffic with a crossing play. It was the Valpo (Valparaiso) play if anybody remembers.’’
The contest was close throughout and the filled Madison gym had a terrific atmosphere to it. Ridgefield Park led 14-11 at the end of the first quarter and built a 26-18 advantage at the half. The Dodgers deficit wasn’t as bad when they rallied to beat Newark Tech on Wednesday, but they knew they had to come out with a strong third quarter.
“I thought we were getting good shots,’’ Librera said. “I know we wanted to will it in (to the basket) but it doesn’t get willed in. We had to calm down.’’
Ridgefield Park’s skill and intensity was evident from the opening tip. The third seeded team had shotmakers and they didn’t shy away from the spotlight.
“They were fired up,’’ McHale said. “On every trip down they were going 100 percent and crashing the boards. They hit big shots at times. That was what really killed us.’’
Madison’s Ed McAndrew and Aaron Fant swamp Ridgefield Park’s Nelson Mendez during state tournament action on Friday.
Gilbert gave the Dodgers a huge lift by scoring 12 of his 15 points in the third quarter. Madison started the period with a 9-1 run with Gilbert, a junior forward, getting seven of those points.
“Gilbert volume scores,’’ Librera said. “He has a little ABA in him. He’s going to cross the line and put them up high off the glass. We’re glad he’s coming back.’’
There were two ties and four lead changes in the quarter which ended with Fant hoisting a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give Madison a 38-36 the lead going into the final period.
Although the final quarter would be thrilling, it would be the last for the Dodgers who should have nothing but happy thoughts about a winning season that should be remembered fondly.
“Our kids are competitors,’’ Librera said. “I feel great that we fostered that environment where kids can flourish like they did tonight. As a coach I’ve learned that what you want to do is give kids opportunities to make more memories. I would have liked to have given them one more memory. I’ve told them that their achievements don’t stop here. All that they achieved is only going to add to the lore of the Dodgers. They are going to continue to achieve great things.’’
State tournament roundup
North 1, Group IV
Paterson Eastside 55, Roxbury 41 – The Gaels magical season ends against one of Passaic County’s best teams. Eastside built a 16-10 lead at the half and went on a 16-11 third-quarter run to build an advantage. David Burgos scored 17 points for Eastside (17-8). Angelo Mangiro scored 14 points and Shaun O’Donnell chipped in with eight points for Roxbury (19-9).
North 1, Group II
Pequannock 62, Manchester Regional 50, – The Golden Panthers advance to the sectional final for the second consecutive season. Ken Brunda had 19 points and 11 rebounds, Stephen Boyd scored 14 points and Ben Kohle and Joe Vedovino had 12 points apiece. Pequannock (21-4) led 26-23 at the half and slowly pulled away. Zhimir Butler had 18 points for Manchester Regional (21-7).