By Mark Kitchin
RANDOLPH– The regular season contest between Morris Hills and Morris Knolls on Thursday was for nothing but bragging rights. So when the Scarlet Knights’ Ranell Bell laid down the challenge in the first quarter, Golden Eagles’ Esaun Mobley found the right time to answer.
Morris Knolls had plenty to say after a 61-57 victory overMorris Hills in a game held at County College of Morris.
Senior forward Niko Kotoulas scored 28 points and Mobley finished with 11 points including 4 of 6 free throws in the final minute to secure a Golden Eagles victory. Evan Staikos scored 20 points to pace the Scarlet Knights in the battle of sister schools.
Bell and Mobley have known each other since they started bouncing basketballs and the rivalry between them has been a friendly one. Sadly, Thursday’s game will be the last contest they will play against each other while wearing their school colors.
Morris Knolls’ Niko Kotoulas (24) and a Morris Hills defender battle it out for a rebound under the basket during Thursday’s game.
“Ranell and I are childhood friends,’’ Mobley said. “Playing this game made it even better. It was fun.
“In the first quarter Ranell said, ‘you are never going to get by me the whole game.’ When it mattered the most, I went by him.’’
Mobley’s driving layup made it 53-52 with 1:29 left and gave Morris Knolls the lead for good. After a Morris Hills miss, the Golden Eagles made it a 3-point game inside a minute when Kotoulas took a pass from Carroll Rich and was fouled while hitting a layup.
“I got a good pass and I got the and-1’’ Kotoulas said. “It was awesome!’’
The play made it 56-52 with 51.8 seconds left. The Golden Eagles stayed ahead because Mobley hit 4 of 6 from the foul line.
“Esaun kept his composure and moved the ball well,’’ Kotoulas said. “It was a team effort. It was very important knocking down those free throws.’’
Morris Hills did have a chance to tie the game in the final seconds when Bell put up a 3-point shot from the right side that bounced off the rim. Morris Knolls’ Aaron Arizmendi was fouled on the rebound and hit a free throw which accounted for the final score.
Morris Knolls Esaun Mobley (1) goes up for a shot as Morris Hills’ Daniel Escobar (35) trails.
Overall, it was an unusual game for the Golden Eagles but one they needed to battle through. Last Saturday Mount Olive defeated Morris Knolls 79-74 in a Morris County Tournament semifinal on the CCM floor. The contest with Morris Hills was scheduled to be played at the Randolph school ahead of time. In the last few years, the rival schools have been playing each other (once a year) at CCM to accommodate the possibility of large crowds that would easily fill up their own school gyms and force them to turn fans away. Next year they will be playing in the same division and will have scheduled home and away games against each other which should only stoke up the rivalry.
“The (MCT) loss still hurts,’’ Kotoulas said. “We were so disappointed about it. I walked in here and I thought – come on we should be in the county finals. It’s disappointing but what can you do.’’
He wasn’t the only one wearing green and gold who felt that way.
“I could safely say that the seniors never wanted to come here and play again,’’ Mobley added.’’
A Morris Knolls hockey game scheduled for the same time limited the Golden Eagles crowd. Somehow the players got through their doldrums and outlasted their upset-hungry foes.
“We didn’t really play our best game but we got the victory,’’ Kotoulas said. “I didn’t think we really had that atmosphere. The Hills fans were quiet. We didn’t have many fans. There was a hockey game tonight.
“We kept working through it. We kept getting offensive rebounds. We kept battling. Esaun hit some clutch free throws. We kept hitting free throws in the second half which is very important.’’
Morris Knolls Brian O’Neil (2) looks for an opening as Morris HIlls’ Michael Lambusta (12) defends during Thursday’s contest.
The contest was close throughout. Morris Knolls led 22-21 at halftime. Every time it looked as if the Golden Eagles were on the verge of pulling away, the Scarlet Knights responded. There were three ties and five lead changes in the third quarter, but Morris Knolls held a 42-37 advantage going into the final period.
Morris Hills did not give up and eventually rallied to take the lead. The Scarlet Knights tied the game 47-all on a pair of free throws by Brian Walls. Then a Bell steal led to Michael Lambusta’s 3-pointer at the 3-minute mark.
Then it was the Golden Eagles turn to respond. First Kotoulas put back a Mobley miss to make it 50-49. Then Kotoulas rebounded a Scarlet Knights’ miss and was fouled on the play with 2:03 left. He hit two free throws to give Morris Knolls back the lead but Staikos, who had another strong performance in the paint, was fouled on a play and hit two free throws to giveMorrisHillsits last advantage at 52-51.
The next possession was Mobley driving layup from the left side to start Morris Knolls on its eventual victory and some renewed confidence before state tournament play begins.
“We were kind of flat today but we still got the win. That’s all that matters in the end,’’ Kotoulas said. “I thought we accomplished a lot (this year) but we really didn’t reach our goals. We still have the state tournament. We’re looking forward to that. The first game is on Tuesday against Memorial. We’re going to come out ready to play.’’