By Mark Kitchin
There was no doubt that Tore Vicarisi and his Mendham Minutemen saved their best performances for their last. The senior forward scored a varsity career-high 41 points and Mendham took an athletic Plainfield team to double overtime before falling 87-81 in the North 2, Group III final played in the hot, noisy Mendham gym on Tuesday.
Junior guard Andrew Jacobs pumped in 18 points and Alex Vicarisi chipped in with nine for the Minutemen which finish at 20-9 .
Justin Sears scored 24 points, Dijon Jordan scored 18 points and Sakou Harris had 17 for Plainfield which improved to 20-8 and will play in a Group III semifinal contest.
It was another tremendous performance for the Minutemen starters, four of whom played 40 minutes straight against an extremely athletic team that subbed liberally. Mendham played well in a 2-3 zone defense that it had not used all season and found ways to score against a quick and tough opponent.
“They are just great, great guys,’’ said Mendham coach Jim Baglin about his players. “I am a better person for having known them. I just told them, you come into high school as little 14-year-old kids and they graduate as men. They were men last night. You couldn’t ask for more.’’
The Mendham players loved the support they got from the fans that packed their gym and were disappointed that their season was finished in front of them.
“I wish I could have done a little more,’’ Tore Vicarisi said. “I’m proud to wear the same uniform as everybody else in there (Mendham locker room).’’
Mendham’s Tore Vicarisi drives for two of his 41 points in the first half of Tuesday’s state sectional final.
Vicarisi in particular played like a man possessed throughout the high energy contest. Time after time he would take the ball to the basket and get knocked down only to come back up stronger. He also had one of his better games from the free throw line. He hit 18 free throws in all and was 13 for 16 from the fourth quarter on.
“It was the most focused I’ve every seen Tore play,’’ Mendham teammate Kyle Dennis said. “He led us and it was probably one of the greatest performances in Mendham history.’’
His 41 points was a career high and the most a Mendham player has scored in a game in the last decade. The last time a Minutemen reached the 40-point mark was when Jeff Schiffner scored 47 points in a Morris County Tournament semifinal against Hanover Park in 2000.
“It was his career,’’ Baglin said of Vicarisi. “He’s arguably the greatest winner to ever play in Morris County. You can say what you want. I’m not going to compare players but when they write the history of Morris County basketball how could you not start with him.
“He was just phenomenal tonight. He’s irreplaceable. You’ll never have another one like him.’’
Mendham had its chances to win the game in front of an excited home crowd. The Minutemen had the ball near the end of regulation but a 3-point effort by Tore Vicarisi with three seconds left bounced off the front rim.
“That was my fault,’’ Vicarisi said. “I forced it. I should have just gone to the hole. I would have gotten a much better shot than that. I made a mistake. I took a rushed shot but it wasn’t a bad play.’’
The first four-minute overtime was a defensive one. Vicarisi scored off an O’Donnell pass to tie the game at 69-all with a minute left. Plainfield called a time out with 22 seconds left but the ball was fumbled around in the waning seconds. A desperation heave by Vaughn Anderson was nearly tipped in by Sears before the buzzer sounded.
“They were the most athletic team we played by far,’’ Tore Vicarisi said. “We never had to face a team like that before but I thought we handled it incredibly well for what was expected. It just shows the heart of the guys in our locker room.’’
Mendham’s Colin O’Donnell launches a jump shot which is contested by Plainfield’s Jahmal Lane during Tuesday’s game.
In double overtime, even though Cardinals players Allen Brown and Jahmal Lane had fouled out, Plainfield began to pull away.
Sears and Vaughn Anderson scored seven points apiece in the high scoring 18-point second overtime while Vicarisi scored all 12 of Mendham’s points. Plainfield opened up the period with an 8-1 run helped by Anderson’s three.
Mendham had tremendous difficulty dealing with Sears all game. He is a tremendous leaper who got plenty of points and offensive rebounds for the Cardinals.
“He was tough on the block,’’ Tore Vicarisi said. “It was more the way they were attacking the rim on the offensive boards. We had trouble with that. All five of their guys just went to the boards really well.’’
Mendham’s Alex Vicarisi passes the ball off while being guarded by Plainfield’s Denzel Christian on Tuesday.
It was a thrilling contest from the opening tip. The Minutemen rarely played zone this season and when they did it was a 1-3-1 that they often extend.
“We thought that was the best defense to guard them,’’ Baglin said. “It worked. We did not rebound well out of it.’’
The decision to play the 2-3 was not as much to get to Plainfield’s perimeter shooters as it was to keep them from attacking the basket.
“The 2-3 was to encourage them to shoot,’’ Dennis said. “You don’t want to play them man because of their drive game. We basically were asking them to shoot jump shots. In the end we were fine rebounding.’’
Offensively, the Minutemen played well from the start mixing in 3-point shots with backdoor layups. Alex Vicarisi hit the first of his long range 3-point shots just before the buzzer to help the Minutemen earn a 16-13 first-quarter lead.
Another Alex Vicarisi 3-pointer and a Jacobs jumper helped Mendham to a 21-15 edge in the first two minutes of the second quarter before Plainfield responded. The Minutemen had a nine-point edge midway through the period but the Cardinals rallied for a 31-all tie at the half.
The teams exchanged runs in the third quarter. Threes by O’Donnell and Jacobs lifted Mendham to a 46-39 edge with 4:10 left but Plainfield came back with vengeance. Their 7-0 run included two of the most dominating dunks ever unleashed by an opposing team in the Minutemen gym. Both Sears and Jordan had a steal and a slam to tie the game at 46. The Minutemen looked to be reeling until Tore Vicarisi drove for a layup to snap his team out of their doldrums.
Mendham led 50-46 going into the fourth quarter and Alex Vicarisi started the period by hitting another three to make it a 7-point edge. However, Plainfield responded with a 14-4 run on its own. When Harris canned a 3-pointer with five minutes left, it was the Cardinals with a 60-57 edge.
There were five lead changes in the final four minutes. Most of Mendham’s points came on Vicarisi’s drive to the basket. Not known as an exceptional free throw shooter. The senior forward was a perfect 6-for-6 as the game wound down. His last two came after a play were he missed a short jumper and a putback off the Mendham backboard but outwrestled two Plainfield defenders in a furious battle to get another shot off with 18.9 seconds left. The shot missed but he was fouled and his free throws made it 65-64.
“It’s my job to lead these guys,’’ Tore Vicarisi said. “I was going to do everything I could to help them win. Until the final buzzer sounded I was going to keep giving it my all.’’
After a timeout, Plainfield guard Harris was able to draw a blocking foul with 10 seconds left. He was only able to hit 1 of 2 to tie the game at 65. The contest was destined to go at least one if not two overtimes from there.
Another sectional title was not to be, but the Minutemen players can look back on another satisfying season and another chapter of Mendham’s basketball legacy. It’s just a shame it ended so quickly.