By Mark Kitchin
RANDOLPH – Randolph’s Aaron Harris would never confuse basketball with football, but there are some times like in Sunday’s Morris County Tournament game against Morris Knolls when those gridiron instincts do come out.
“Honestly, when I’m out there football does go through my mind,’’ Harris said. “I have to focus more when I’m playing basketball but I’m just out there trying to help the team.’’
Randolph’s 48-35 triumph was built on muscle and hustle. Scratches, bumps, bruises and blood were the cost. No shot was put up without an opposing hand to contest it. No drive to the basket occurred without some collision between players. Shots were blocked, layups were missed and the team that came out ahead knew that it was a victory well earned.
“Both teams were grinding,’’ said Matt Tighe, who has been sharing Randolph head coaching duties with Joe Mazzarella. “It was a physical game. I like our kids when it is physical. When the game turns too much into a soft game, we sometimes lose interest. When we can hit people and be physical, that’s when guys step up.’’
Ryan Harris scored 15 points to help move Randolph into the semifinal round where it will face top-seeded and defending Chatham for the second consecutive year. It’s been a crazy season for the Rams, who at one point were 4-9 and had to deal with the resignation of Coach Bill Kilduff for medical reasons. Kilduff attended Sunday’s game looking in good health and visibly proud that the Rams advanced to the semifinal game with such a scrappy defensive effort.
Randolph’s Ryan Harris scored 15 points in Randolph’s MCT win over Morris Knolls on Sunday. (By Mark Kitchin)
Randolph, the 12th-seeded team, has won games in a variety of ways, but it does relish the physical play. When the Rams defeated Morris Knolls 66-56 on Dec. 20, the Golden Eagles were missing a few players. The Rams knew the possibility of this type of game existed and they were ready for it. Harris had the key task of guarding Morris Knolls’ Mike Signer, a 6-foot-5 athlete that can score, rebound and block shots.
“What I did was basically give him an arm’s length and when he got ready to pull up I made sure to get a hand in his face,’’ Harris said. “When he was down in the post I fronted him and made sure he didn’t get the ball.’’
Signer was held to nine points despite having a size advantage on Harris, who stands 5-foot-11 but has great leaping ability.
“Size doesn’t matter with Aaron,’’ TIghe said. “Aaron plays a 6-foot-8 guy better than he plays a 5-foot-8 guy. So we put him on a big kid like that. Big kids don’t want to crossover (dribble) with him because he’s so low to the ground. He’s so strong and he’s fast. It’s very hard to get by him.
“Signer’s a shooter so we felt like all Aaron had to do was body him up outside the paint and hope they don’t post him up. That was our concern. They didn’t do that so he could challenge shots and contest and play a good game.’’
Randolph’s Chris Woodbury pulls down a rebound in first half action on Sunday. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)
The Rams also had concerns about the Golden Eagles point guard Brian O’Neill for a number of reasons. The senior guard scored 26 points and knocked down four 3-pointers in that December game.
“He’s a physical kid,’’ Harris said. “From the last game we played, we know he likes to cause other team’s problems. We did a triangle-and-two (zone defense) on him and Carroll Rich. That’s why it was hard for him to score as much as he did against us.’’
The Morris Knolls athlete can score and distribute but he can also be a very disruptive influence on the court. He employs a combination of tenacity, attitude and gamesmanship to create frustrating situations for his opponents.
“That’s his game and we knew that going into it,’’ Tighe said. “That’s kind of why we started off face guarding him because we know it frustrates him. It put him on edge from the beginning.’’
O’Neill suffered a gash over his right eye midway through the first quarter and had to leave the game for a spell in order for the wound to be bandaged. The tough player returned and in the second half had to be re-bandaged when blood from the cut started seeping down onto his cheek.
Randolph fans should be out in droves for the MCT semifinals next Saturday. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)
Such physical and heated games can lead to chippy play at times especially when Randolph started pulling away. The Rams coaches lectured their players throughout to keep them focused on their goal.
“We talked about it after every quarter and we talked about it especially at halftime when we felt like we were going to break it open,’’ Tighe said. “We didn’t. We felt like if we did things might get chippy. We had a lot of basketball left. We wanted to keep our composure and do the right thing.’’
Randolph had a double-digit lead most of the contest, but a 9-0 fourth-quarter Morris Knolls run made it a 29-25 game with about six minutes left. The Rams didn’t panic and eventually pulled away. Composure and maturity will matter more and more as the Rams continue on their title run.
“In the big game, you have to realize there are a lot of people watching,’’ Randolph’s junior center Chris Woodbury said. “There are three refs out there. You have to keep it cool. A stupid, hard foul could make a difference in the game.’’
Randolph’s Pat Archer battles Morris Knolls’ Hugo Jimenez for a rebound on Sunday. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)
It helps the Rams that their bigger players a showing vast improvement. Woodbury and Pat Archer grab rebounds, score on short jumpers and putbacks and take up space in the paint on defense.
“Our big kids are the unsung heroes,’’ Tighe said. “They work their tails off. They don’t get very many touches because we are such a guard-oriented team. For them to continue to come to practice, continue to work hard in games and rebound for us — that’s huge.’’
Woodbury has been a pleasant surprise. He has moved his way up from the end of the bench early in the season to a starting spot on Sunday. Archer was a starter most of last season. Either together or in a tag-team role they have complementary skills around the rim.
Randolph didn’t make it easy for Morris Knolls’ Brian O’Neill to drive to the hoop. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)
They were prepared to battle Morris Knolls’ inside player Hugo Jimenez but it turned out not to be much of a match. Jimenez, who was averaging 16 points over his last five games and scored 17 points in the Golden Eagles’ MCT upset of Hanover Park, sat much of the game and was limited to three points total.
“Woodbury is the more physical one,’’ Tighe said. “Archer has a little better understanding of the game. That’s a nice kind of combination to have. (Archer) has good timing. Defensively, he always knows where he is supposed to be. He always plays good help side defense. Woodbury uses a little more force. He will get there but he might knock you over doing it. That’s kind of what we like too.’’
And the Rams like they way they are playing going into the semifinals. Many of the players still remember last year’s semifinal game against Chatham where one close call ended up making a difference. It’s one of the incentives that have brought Randolph back for a second chance.
“We basically came out here and did what we were supposed to do,’’ Harris said. “Thankfully we made it back to county semifinals and hopefully we can take it all the way this year.’’