By Mark Kitchin
DENVILLE – As a junior Brian O’Neill played varsity last year as if he was wearing shackles on his arms and a ball and chain on each leg. The Morris Knolls guard wasn’t asked to do a lot since the Golden Eagles had experienced seniors to fulfill those roles. Now opponents are beginning to find out what O’Neill can do when he’s allowed to roam free on the court.
O’Neill scored 25 points, including 16 in the fourth quarter, to lift Morris Knolls to a 55-43 triumph over Parsippany Hills in the opening game of the Morris Knolls Holiday Tournament. Aaron Arizmandi added nine points and Mike Signer added eight for Morris Knolls (3-2). The Golden Eagles will play Jefferson in Friday’s tournament final. The unbeaten Falcons topped Belleville 60-41 on Thursday.
Morris Knolls built a 24-16 halftime lead over Parsippany Hills and endured a third-quarter run to earn the triumph. Mike DeEdwardo scored 15 points to pace the Vikings (1-3).
Morris Knolls point guard Brian O’Neill has the Golden Eagles going in the right direction. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)
This season has been an interesting and enlightening one for many of the Golden Eagles players. Graduating starters Niko Kotoulas (Johns Hopkins), Esaun Mobley (County College of Morris) and Kevin Miller accounted for more than 60 percent of the offense on a team that won 20 games and advanced to the semifinals of the Morris County Tournament for the first time in years. Kotoulas and Miller were tall and quick while Mobley deftly handled the ball and ran much of the offense. Often the talent and size of the trio overcame any team defects and mistakes.
This year the Golden Eagles are much smaller and must be a more cohesive unit in order to succeed. Players like O’Neill, Arizmandi and Signer earned some varsity playing time in the past but they did not have a much pressure placed squarely on their shoulders. Now they are being tested and are rising to the occasion.
“It’s a pretty big transition, especially missing three of our main scorers,’’ Signer said. “I think we have better chemistry this year. I think you saw that in the first couple of minutes of this game. We talk to each other, we share the ball and that’s something that we didn’t have last year.’’
O’Neill seems thrilled with the chances he’s getting at the offensive end. There’s no need for him to think twice if there is an opening for himself or a teammate.
“There are just a lot more shot opportunities now,’’ O’Neill said. “They (Niko and Esaun) took a vast amount of he shots. This year it’s just who wants to pick it up. This year we depend more on each other. We have to play more like a team to be successful. … Defensively it’s different because Niko is not getting all of the rebounds. Now we definitely have to all box-out as a team.’’
Morris Knolls’ Aaron Arizmendi (5) puts up a shot against Parsippany Hills on Thursday. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)
Like many teams this time of year, the Golden Eagles are still trying to adjust to their roles. One counted upon returnee Chris Stark, the team’s center, has been out with an injury and it is hoped he will return in January. Solid inside player Hugo Jimenez missed most of the summer season with concussion issues. He has been playing lately, he had eight points on Thursday, but he’s still a bit out of synch.
“You don’t really know what to expect,’’ Morris Knolls coach Ken Ferrare said. “We’ve had guys in and out. Some of these guys have looked good in the preseason but now they are rusty. … I definitely think we are a work in progress.’’
“We’ve had a couple of big injuries,’’ Signer added. “We’ve been feeling our way out. We’ve had a lot of people step up. People have had to fill roles they haven’t filled before but it has only helped us grow as a team.’’
O’Neill and Signer are team captains and have been two of the more consistent athletes in the early going. From the very beginning O’Neill has been able to give the Golden Eagles direction.
“He likes to get to the basket,’’ Ferrare said. “He’s gotten bigger and stronger this year. So far he’s having a great year. … We knew that he had talent and that he was going to score. Last year he was capable of scoring but we needed him for defense and ballhandling and he gave us what we needed. This year we need more scoring. Last year he was playing behind an All-County point guard (Mobley). This year we hope he becomes an All-County point guard’’
O’Neill does a lot of the things that a good point guard should. He handles the ball. He is not afraid to drive to the basket and he always keeps an eye out for open teammates.
“Last year I was more passive than I should have been,’’ O’Neill said. “I was a little scared about taking the wrong shot, but now if I make a bad play I just have to make up for it.’’
When he gets fouled, especially on the fourth quarter, he knocks down his free throws with seemingly little effort.
“I’ve been playing with Brian since the first grade,’’ Signer said. “I really expect him to have a big season. He was playing in the shadows of some of the other players. This year he has really gotten his chance to shine.’’
Parsippany Hills’ Connor Clark puts up a shot against the Morris Knolls defense in tournament play. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)
On Thursday, when O’Neill was on the floor, the Golden Eagles played well. He scored seven points, including one 3-pointer, in the first quarter to help Morris Knolls to an 11-2 lead at the end of the period.
Morris Knolls had a 24-16 halftime lead and maintained an advantage for most of the third quarter. When O’Neill picked up his third foul on a charging call midway through the quarter and had to sit, the Vikings started chipping away. Parsippany Hills seemed to have momentum on its side when Kire Milevski hit a corner jumper at the buzzer to cut the Morris Knolls lead to 33-30 going into the final period.
However, with O’Neill back in the game, the Golden Eagles went on an 8-0 run to start the fourth quarter. O’Neill and Signer scored four points each during the two-minute spree. It was a Signer rebound and layup off an O’Neill miss that made it a double-digit advantage again at 41-30.
“At the end of the third quarter we talked to each other,’’ Signer said. “We all communicated. We knew we had to go to work. Brian stepped up. Everybody stepped up. We played good defense. We got stops and went down the floor and scored. We had a lot of energy.’’
The Vikings called a timeout, but they were never able to reduce their deficit back under a double-digit margin. The Golden Eagles made sure of that by putting the ball in O’Neill’s hands. He was 10 of 11 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter and scored 16 points total to give the Golden Eagles the win.