Mount Olive rallies past Morris Knolls to reach MCT final

By Mark Kitchin


RANDOLPH— The players on the Mount Olive basketball call it the “Avalanche” and with it the Marauders will take their first trip to the Morris County Tournament final in more than two decades.

Kevin Miller scored 20 points and Jimmy Pastena had 15 points on five 3-pointers to lift Mount Olive to a 79-74 triumph over Morris Knolls and advance to next Saturday’s title game against Chatham at County College of Morris in Randolph. Chatham edged Randolph 52-48 in the other semifinal contest. Both semifinal games were held in front of a capacity crowd at CCM.

Rashaan Spencer added 13 points for the sixth-seeded Marauders which rallied from a 21-7 first-quarter deficit. The contest was in doubt until the final minute when Justin Palanchi hit four free throws in the final 22 seconds to secure the triumph. It is the second time the Marauders have advanced to the title game and the first time since 1989. That year they lost to Delbarton in the final.

Esaun Mobley scored 21 points and Niko Kotoulas added 17 for second-seeded Morris Knolls.

Mount Olive’s Rashaan Spencer (25) and Morris Knolls’ Niko Kotoulas battled for the ball in Saturday’s MCT semifinal contest.

“It was awesome,’’Mount Olive coach Kevin Moore said. “These kids are just resilient. They don’t think they are going to lose. They play that way. They never get too high and they never get too low in the course of a game. They were down big today but they knew they were going to comeback. We just waited for the avalanche. It’s going to come no matter what.’’

The Mount Olive players also wanted to do something special for Moore who was the men’s basketball coach at County College of Morris for six seasons.

“We came out slow after the first quarter but we never gave up,’’ Palanchi said. “We knew that we could come back. Some of our guys hit some big threes. My threes weren’t falling but everyone elses were. I was following them because I knew they were hitting shots.’’

Mount Olive hit 14 3-point shots but none of them were by Palanchi, who is one of their more accurate marksmen. He scored all eight of his points on free throws. He sealed the victory by knocking down a pair of free throws with 22.7 seconds left and another pair with 6.4 seconds to cement the Marauders triumph.

“I’m lucky that I was given the opportunity,’’ Palanchi said. “To knock them down was awesome, in front of all these people, all these fans. It’s a once in a lifetime experience. I love it. I can’t wait to come back next week and do it again.’’

At one point, if there was an avalanche, it seemed to be falling on Mount Olive. Morris Knolls’ Kevin Miller started the game with a dunk and the Golden Eagles were flying. The Marauders shot poorly, falling behind 21-7 at the end of the first quarter. Morris Knolls seemed comfortable adapting to Mount Olive’s fast-break style. The Golden Eagles, which have a deep team, even subbed in shifts of five early in the game like the Marauders and seemed to be getting the kind of second-chance opportunities that the Marauders relish. However, Mount Olive rallied in the second quarter by outscoring Morris Knolls, 26-11.

“In the second quarter we knew the avalanche was coming like coach always says,’’ Palanchi said. “It always comes. Eventually we got the tempo the way we wanted. We know our shots are going to fall.’’

Mount Olive’s Zac Heeman (34) and Morris Knolls’ Kevin Miller (22) crash the boards during Saturday’s contest.

Mount Olive had concerns about Morris Knolls senior starters Mobley and Kotoulas but because of the nature of the Grinnell System, they don’t often draw up defensive game plans focusing instead on finding ways to push up tempo and create turnovers so teams can’t get into settled offenses. The Marauders did not want to see the Golden Eagles better players get into their own rhythm.

“Mobley was definitely dangerous,’’ Palanchi said. “We worked on one press all week that singled him out. Niko can get to the rim and we had to work on boxing him out because they had a height advantage with him and Kevin Miller, so we knew we had to box them out.’’

Spencer had eight points and Miller seven during the second-quarter avalanche. Mount Olive was able to take the lead 33-32 at the half

“It was an energetic experience,’’ Spencer said. “It was our will. We really didn’t want to let the seniors down. We knew the shots were going to fall. We just kept pushing.’’

Morris Knolls took back the lead for most of the third quarter before Mount Olive rallied to take the lead late in the period. The Marauders went on an 8-2 run in the final 2:30 of the quarter sparked by back-to-back three-pointers by Frank Pastena. The spurt gave Mount Olive a 59-53 edge going into the fourth quarter. They did most of it without the team’s 6-foot-7 center Zac Heeman who picked up his fourth foul early in the quarter and had to sit.

“We had to bring in some subs because Zach had four fouls in the third quarter,’’ Palanchi said. “Ryan Traub, Joe Brown, even Kevin Schafer stepped up. We had to find ways to get boards and find ways to score. They did. They stepped up big.’’

Mount Olive’s Rich Notillo (2) tries to deflect a Mount Olive pass during Saturday’s MCT contest.

The Marauders led by as many as seven points in the final period but could never shake the game Golden Eagles. A 3-pointer by Carroll Rich with 2:34 left made it a 69-67 game butMount Olive responded with a layup by Miller. Then after Zac Heeman blocked a Morris Knolls shot, Pastena knocked down the last of his threes to make it 74-67 with 2:10 left.

Mobley knocked down a 3-point shot and O’Neil hit a pair of free throws down the stretch to make it 75-72 with just over a minute remaining. The teams exchanged possessions and Rich drove for a layup to make it 75-74 with 32 seconds on the scoreboard.

A turnover forced the Golden Eagles to foul and Palanchi knocked down his pair to make it a 3-point game. Palanchi also rebounded Mobley’s 3-point shot attempt that was off the mark and cemented the win with a pair of free throws with 6.4 seconds left.

“We don’t seem to hit free throws in the first three quarter but they go in, in the fourth,’’Moore said. “These guys played so hard today. They had no quit in them. We controlled the tempo and by the end things seemed to fall our way.’’





About mcvbb

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

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