MCT Semifinal Preview

By Mark Kitchin

Morriscountyvarsityboysbasketball

This year’s semifinal round of the Morris County Tournament has been unlike any other, not only for the teams that advanced but also for the team’s that are missing.

The opening game pits sixth-seeded Mount Olive against second seeded Morris Knolls in a 5 p.m. start. It is followed with the 6:30 game in which fourth-seeded Chatham takes on eighth-seeded Randolph. Both contests will be held at County College of Morris in Randolph on Saturday.

It has been a long time since Mount Olive and Morris Knolls have made appearances in the tournament semifinals. The last time the Marauders advanced that far was 1989. Those were the teams of Gary Spaldi and Phil Hunt among others. It was the only time Mount Olive reached the title game losing to Delbarton 72-58.

It is Morris Knolls first semifinal appearance in more than 30 years. In 1979 they lost to Chatham Borough in overtime. The Golden Eagles had tremendous success in the early history of the MCT. They hosted the first MCT final which was won by Mountain Lakes in 1970. Morris Knolls would eventually win three titles, in 1972, 1975 and 1976.

It is also marks the first time in 24 years that neither Delbarton nor Mendham advanced to the Final Four.

The rivals have often battled for the county title. Other times when one has faltered in early tournament rounds, the other often steps up. The absence of both powerhouses seems very strange but shouldn’t detract from the excitement of a tournament run for any of the remaining teams.

The last time the Minutemen and Green Wave were forced to buy a ticket for the games was in 1988. Pequannock, Morristown, West Morris and Mount Olive were the competitors that year.

Tyler McEvoy (22) is one of the many players thet Mount Olive rely on to score in bunches with their high-octane offense. 

Morris Knolls vs. Mount Olive

Congratulations are in order for Kevin Moore’s Mount Olive team. The Marauders succeeded in upsetting defending champion Mendham to reach a spot the program has not attained in more than two decades.

They did it despite the obstacles the Minutemen put in their way.Mount Olive uses the Grinnell System which emphasizes pressure defense, three-point shooting and an attacking offensive style that encourages teams to shoot in 12 seconds or less.  When it’s working it’s an immensely entertaining style of play. Early this week Mount Olive defeated Morris Hills 108-100 in overtime. The Minutemen would have none of it last week. They slowed down the tempo, negated their traps and even somehow found ways to sabotage their platoon system in which the Marauders substitute four or five players at a time. Mount Olive also didn’t shoot from the perimeter as well as it usually does but still gutted out a 61-51 quarterfinal round victory that eliminated the defending champs.

Knocking them down from long range should be easier forMount Olivethis week, although the junior college court might seem a little longer and wider and the rims are not as forgiving as most high school gyms. Kevin Miller, Jim Pastena and Justin Palanchi are the best of the Marauders when it comes to dialing it up from long range. Rashaan Spencer and Zach Heeman were immensely important against Mendham because of their offensive diversity. Spencer can shoot the three, but his best success usually comes on drives to the basket and the lanes are often open to him.Mount Olive also has an inside game with 6-foot-7 Zach Heeman. The savvy sophomore’s ability to score down low on offense and also defend the rim on defense while his teammates are pressing will make his role a vital one.

The Golden Eagles are also a team enjoying a renaissance. The highest-seeded squad still playing hasn’t had this much tournament success since the mid 70’s when current CCM coach Jamie Ciampaglio roamed the court. After a sluggish start Morris Knolls dominated MountainLakes 72-50 in the only truly lopsided quarterfinal round game of the day. One thing coach Ken Ferrare’s Golden Eagles have that Mendham lacked is some size and length. Senior Niko Kotoulas is a mobile 6-foot-5 athlete who is determined to help deliver his team a title. He has great scoring range and can connect in a variety of different ways from a variety of angles. His teammate 6-foot-7 Kevin Miller has long arms. He can block shots, rebound, defend and hit open jumpers. Aaron Arizmendi and reserve Chris Stark also throw their weight around. It will be interesting to see how Morris Knolls guard Esaun Mobley will take to this tempo. The Golden Eagles will try to put the ball in his hands as much as possible. He should have no problem with the run-and-gun style but will he? He will have to make good decisions with the ball but that doesn’t always mean pushing it to the hoop. His ballhandling skills might allow the Golden Eagles to develop a slower tempo if they go that route. Michael Signer, Carroll Rich and Brian O’Neil will also have to take care of the ball and take advantage of opportunities. Morris Knolls likes to play 2-3 and 1-2-2 zone defenses but Mount Olive will do its best to get to the basket before the Golden Eagles set up. Morris Knolls does have some depth but it’s hard to say if their regulars can keep up with a team that changes shifts every one or two minutes. There is also the magnitude of the event to consider. Both teams are having breakthrough years and neither team made it past the opening round of the MCT last season. This is new ground for both the players and the coaching staffs. The winner may end up being the team that doesn’t blink, keeps its composure and sticks to its gameplan. 

Randolph’s Julian Aiken (5) will play a key role for the Rams when they play Chatham in Saturday’s semifinal round contest.

Chatham vs. Randolph

Although they play in different divisions of the Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference, these teams played before. Chatham topped Randolph 56-50 in a January 28 contest in Randolph. The eighth-seeded Rams confidence has been growing in leaps and bounds. They got off to a great start in their quarterfinal round game, survived a late run including a miraculous 3-point buzzer beater by Harrison Rosemond and defeated top-seeded Morristown-Beard in overtime 71-62. Julian Aiken, the leading scorer in the state with his 27 points per game average, hit for 43 in the triumph. 

Aiken, a senior guard, has good range and a strong repertoire of shots. He can hit from the perimeter, he is fearless on drives down the lane. He finishes shots, knocks down free throws and is a quality ballhandler. He also knows his limitations on the double teams and will look for his open teammates as they cut to the hoop. Ryan Harris has become a critical secondary scorer for the Rams. Aaron Harris and Connor McMahon get inside points and play tough in the paint. So does Patrick Archer, a smart sophomore who is also counted on for boards and tough defense. The Rams have not been strong defensively early in the season but get better with every contest. They did a good job of neutralizing an athletic Morristown-Beard team late in last week’s contest. The guards including Matt Bonner will occasionally pressure opposing team’s ballhandlers with good results.

Chatham is another team that shows improvement with every contest. The fourth-seeded Cougars dispatched rival Madisonin the quarterfinal round 44-33 to advance to the semis for the second time in the last three years.Chathamhas been quietly impressive, compiling a 20-2 record and a 17-game winning streak. They are unbeaten against county opponents and haven’t lost since falling to Millburn on December 28.Chatham may not have the size of Randolphbut the Cougars are deceptively strong and quick. They are also well schooled in man-to-man defense, help defense concepts and boxing out. When an opponent slips by one Chatham player, there are usually two others waiting to pounce on him. Teams will have to earn their points against them. At the heart ofChatham’s success is Jonathan Berntsen. The senior point guard has returned after tearing his meniscus in his right knee during a holiday tournament game. He underwent surgery and an intensive rehab period and has made a remarkable comeback. Berntsen has not lost much of his quickness or ability to make cuts. He has been appearing off the bench with good results lately and may start in the county game, giving the Cougars an emotional boost. Berntsen is a 3-year starter and a skilled shooter with good range but he is best known for making good decisions with the ball. He also has more MCT experience than most of the players left in the tournament. While Berntsen and some of his teammates were out with injuries, several jayvee players took their places and earned serious varsity minutes that they still maintain. Luke Conrad can be counted on to run the point as well as score a few. Scott Baker has also made his presence felt with points and rebounds and sophomore Robert Raiola has also logged important minutes in crunch time. Their success has added depth to a team that was already versatile. Joe Timmes has emerged as an important player for the Cougars. The 6-foot-4 forward is the team’s main inside scorer and an important rebounder. Colin Brown has also been steady in the post with gritty defense and adds a few points in the paint. Drew Ballard does a little bit of everything and can knock down shots off open looks.Chathammay not be as perimeter dominated as teams in the past but they don’t shy from taking an open shot either.

If Aiken and Berntsen end up guarding each other it could be interesting. The two have played together on AAU teams and might relish the matchup. Since he triggers so much of Randolph’s offense it is imperative for the Cougars to contain Aiken in order to have a chance to win. That won’t be easy. Also watch for the battle inside. The Rams have some size, muscle and might be a touch more athletic but the Cougars are fundamentally sound and can be very tenacious.

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About mcvbb

Mark Kitchin is a boys varsity basketball writer for the Morris County New Jersey area

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