By Mark Kitchin
RANDOLPH– After 31 minutes and 49 seconds of battling through a multitude of Mount Olive defenders, Chatham’s Jonathan Berntsen fully expected a host of Marauders to swamp him in the waning moments of the Morris County Tournament final. No one was more shocked then Berntsen when he found a clear path to the basket and made an uncontested shot to give the Cougars a tournament title.
Berntsen scored 25 points including a layup with three seconds left in regulation to lift Chatham to a 77-75 triumph over Mount Olive in Saturday’s MCT final.
Joe Timmes added 13 points and Colin Brown chipped in with 10 points for the fourth-seeded Cougars. It is the second time Chatham has captured the boys title, matching the one it earned in 2007 with an overtime triumph against Delbarton.
Sophomore center Zach Heeman scored 23 points and Justin Palanchi added 16 for sixth- seeded Mount Olive. It was the Marauders second appearance in an MCT final and their first since 1989. Palanchi put in a layup with 11.6 seconds left forcing the Cougars to take a timeout. The inbounds went to Berntsen at about the Mount Olive foul line. The senior guard, who had missed most of January with a torn meniscus, dribbled through two Mount Olive defenders, got past midcourt and watched the floor open up in front of him.
Tournament MVP Jonathan Berntsen (21) and the rest of the Chatham boys basketball team celebrate an MCT title.
“I thought they would be in man (to man press) but maybe they were in zone,’’ Berntsen said. “We wanted to get somebody deep. I got the ball on the curl. Nobody stopped me which was — I did not think that was going to happen.
“The game was tied. There were 11 seconds left. I felt it could be the greatest moment of my life or it could be the worst moment of my life. I went the length of the court and it turned out to be awesome.’’
Mount Olive called timeout with 1.6 seconds but could not execute a quality shot attempt and Chatham was able to celebrate.
Berntsen didn’t want the thought of layup he missed seconds before to haunt his senior season. Just inside a minute with Chatham leading 73-70, Berntsen took a Timmes feed and put up a layup from the right side that rolled off the rim. Mount Olive rebounded it and the Marauders’ Kevin Miller knocked down a 3-point shot from the right side, his third trey of the game. The sequence turned a 5-point Chatham lead into a tie game
“I was thinking about that,’’ Berntsen said. “Once they tied the game, I was like – Wow! That layup could have cost us our season. But thankfully it didn’t.’’
During the game, Berntsen also had some fleeting thoughts about his twin sister Amanda. The Chatham girls team suffered a devastating lost to Jefferson in the MCT girls final on Friday night. Berntsen and his teammates were determined to get a better result for the boys’ side.
“My sister is on the team and I saw how upset she was,’’ Berntsen said. “I didn’t want that to happen to me. I was ready to do anything to get this win.’’
Overall, Chatham worked hard to take care of the ball and not let Mount Olive push the tempo harder than the Cougars could handle. They adjusted to their full-court pressure by using the width and length of the CCM floor, stretching the Marauders full-court pressures and working the ball up methodically
“We didn’t want to get caught up in their tempo,’’ Berntsen said. “I think that’s why a lot of teams were caught off guard by their game. We like to slow the game down and try to get the best shot possible. We slowed it down and we made them work on defense.’’
“In the first half it was really ugly,’’Chatham coach Todd Ervin said. “In the second half, we got used to it and we settled down and we made good decisions. … If you turn the ball over, it does lead to open threes. That was the main thing. Don’t turn the ball over.”
Chatham captains Johnathan Berntsen (21) and Colin Brown (11) pose with tournament hardware before calling their teammates to join them.
Chatham also got a boost when it was able to put Sam Carson back in the lineup. The junior guard, who started most of his sophomore season, missed most of this season with an injury that may have been misdiagnosed. He was cleared to play last week and saw action in a couple of games. Carson gave his team an added boost with good defense, some rebounds and six points including two fourth-quarter free throws.
“This was the biggest game of the year,’’ Carson said. “We had a really good week of practice and our jayvee team did a really good job of simulating what Mount Olive was like. … In a big game like this you are going to have turnovers and everyone is going to be a little hyped up. We just calmed it down and pulled through.’’
“He absolutely helped us,’’ Ervin said. “He was another healthy body. He was someone who could go in and play. He made some good plays. He handled the ball well. He didn’t shoot his free throws as well as he normally does but he played well.’’
Although he was Mount Olive’s leading scorer, Chatham also did its best to make Heeman, a 6-foot-7 center work for every bit of his 23 points.
“We tried to make him catch it away from the basket,’’ Ervin said. “We didn’t want to let him get it too deep and he got it too deep a couple of times. We didn’t want to have to double and leave people open. We wanted to let him shoot and hopefully we could defend him and not give them open threes.’’
It was a thrilling contest from beginning to end that was enjoyed by a capacity crowd at County College of Morris that cheered raucously at every wild scramble or long distance shot. Neither team showed much nervousness and seemed eager to battle in a scrappy, upbeat style.
“It was awesome,’’ Timmes said. “The crowd was into it which made it even better. Getting the win makes it all the more memorable.”
Mount Olive’s sophomore center Zach Heeman led the Marauders with 23 points.
Chatham opened their bench a bit and substituted in shifts much like Mount Olive has done throughout the tournament. There were numerous lead changes throughout the first half. The Marauders owned 16-14 edge at the end of the first quarter and were up 32-31 at the half.
Midway through the third quarter Chatham went on an 11-2 run sparked by a pair of layups by sophomore Robert Raiola (9 points in all) to make it 46-37 at the three minute mark. The Cougars pushed its lead to 50-40 before Mount Olive roared back. In the final minute of the quarter, Miller knocked down back-to-back threes and then a Miller steal led to a Palanchi 3-pointer. Chatham held tenuously to a 52-49 edge coming to the final period.
The fourth quarter included five ties and two lead changes. One of the most thrilling sequences was spurred by Timmes. With the game tied at 66, the Chatham forward connected on a layup on a Luke Conrad pass, then stole a pass, took it down the floor and knocked down a 3-point shot to make it a 71-66 game with a little over two minutes left.
“It just kind of started rolling,’’ Timmes said. “Somebody threw a good pass to me down low and then I got the steal and hit the three. By then momentum had kind of shifted our way.’’
The teams exchanged scores. Heeman knocked down two free throws after Colin Brown committed his fifth foul and was forced to leave the game. Berntsen’s layup was followed by a putback by Heeman to make it 73-70
Chatham’s Luke Conrad (2) chases Mount Olive’s Justin Palanchi (44) during Saturday’s MCT Final.
That was followed by Berntsen’s missed layup and Miller’s 3-pointer. Inside of a minute, Carson was fouled and hit one of two free throws. His miss was rebounded by Timmes, who got the ball to Drew Ballard who was fouled. However, Ballard also went one of two to make it 75-73.
The crowd buzzed with anticipation of Mount Olive possibly holding the ball to hit a 3-pointer to win, but Palanchi found an opening and drove to the basket to tie the contest at 75. Chathamcalled timeout and the ball would eventually land in Berntsen’s hands. A Chatham title soon followed.
This year’s All-Tournament team included Berntsen and Timmes of Chatham, Heeman and Palanchi of Mount Olive, Julian Aiken of Randolph and Niko Kotoulas of Morris Knolls.