Chatham’s versatility makes all the difference

By Mark Kitchin

Morriscountyvarsityboysbasketball

RANDOLPH – One Chatham point guard was sitting on the sidelines while another had just hobbled off the court. What are the Cougars to do? Sam Carson it’s your turn.

Carson and his teammates did what they had to do and Chatham continued on its march to defend the county title with a 59-44 triumph over Randolph in Saturday’s Morris County Tournament semifinal contest at County College of Morris.

Joe Timmes scored 15 points and Carson added 13 for Chatham. The Cougars pulled away with a 20-10 fourth quarter effort. The win advances the top-seeded and defending champion Chatham to next Saturday’s title game against last year’s finalist Mount Olive, a 62-60 victor over Morristown. Chatham will be battling for its third title in three tries.

Ryan Harris and Thayer Wallace scored 14 points apiece for the 12th-seeded Rams. The physical contest was closer than the final score appeared. A 3-pointer by Harris cut Randolph’s deficit to within 41-40 with 5:40 left in regulation.

However, Chatham went on a 14-0 run sparked by a driving layup by Carson that turned into a 3-point play. He was fouled by Aaron Harris, who then left the game with four fouls. The Rams missed eight consecutive shots from the floor after that as the Cougars pulled away.

“We just started to lock up on defense and turn it up on that end,’’ Timmes said. “We also started executing with the ball a little better and got better shots – and they had to foul us.’’

The Cougars also excelled at the free throw line late in the game. Chatham sank 12 of 12 shots in the fourth quarter. Carson and Timmes were both 5 for 5 from the line.

Chatham’s ability to bounce back from setbacks, including injuries to their athletes, should be no surprise to anyone. In the last few years, it seems as if anytime someone goes down, the Cougars are able to find just the right athlete to fill the void or just the right strategy to minimize the loss.

516 bb mctsemi

Sam Carson is one of many Chatham players who know when to step up. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)

“We don’t expect a lot from all of them,’’ Chatham Coach Todd Ervin said. “It’s just that everyone knows their role and plays within our framework.’’

Carson is a case in point. Juniors Luke Conrad and Rob Raiola, who performed the service of filling in for injured players last year as sophomores, are both on the mend. It is hoped the Conrad will be back for the final on Saturday but he has already missed several weeks after suffering a concussion. Raiola took over some of the ballhandling duties, but he had to leave Saturday’s game in the second quarter when he tripped on a drive, fell on his knee and couldn’t continue. Enter Carson, who had been sharing ballhandling duties after Conrad went down.

“Our team is good because we have so many people who can step up,’’ Carson said. “A lot of seniors have been playing with the same group of kids for 10 years now. We’re really comfortable with each other.’’

“Fortunately we have enough guys who can do it (play the point),’’ Ervin said. “(Daniel) McGinley, Drew (Ballard) did it some and Joe (Timmes) but we would like to have Conrad and Raiola back.’’

Carson wasn’t just filling in a spot. The Chatham athlete can make plays and gave his team a spark in the fourth quarter. His driving layup wasn’t run of the mill. He took on Harris, arguably the Rams most athletic defender, moved right, put the ball behind his back and drove down the left side of the lane, eventually creating a 3-point play and sending Harris to the Randolph bench with his fourth foul.

“He’s a really aggressive and really athletic kid,’’ Carson said. “I knew my shot wasn’t really falling so I was just trying to get to the basket. They were really physical and I was trying to get a foul and it went in.’’

His behind-the-back move is normally relegated to practice. It might have looked flashy but it was necessary in order to separate himself from his defender.

“I’m never really surprised when he steps up because he’s been doing it the entire season,’’ Timmes said. “I’m never surprised with what he can do.’’

The Cougars’ contest with the Rams was most anticipated. In last year’s semifinal, a foul call between Raiola and Aaron Harris was pivotal in deciding the contest. This year Raiola missed the second half because of injury and Harris sat much of the fourth quarter with foul trouble. Since the teams split the season series, this year’s game generated just as much interest. According to the Chatham players, it was easily the most physical.

“This was the toughest of the three,’’ Carson said. “It was high intensity with everything on the line. The physicality was definitely higher this time.’’

The biggest surprise of the game was probably the play of Wallace, who is known much more for his track exploits and did not even go out for basketball last year. Wallace scored 10 of his 14 points in the second quarter, most of them on transition layups , and kept the Rams on the Cougars’ heels. Chatham led 26-24 at the break.

“We made sure in the second half that we didn’t give him any wide open layups,’’ Ervin said. “It was all about just getting back and adjusting to what they were doing.’’

Meanwhile the Rams played a physical defensive game and challenged Timmes who only had a first-quarter 3-pointer on his ledger at the half.

“Randolph is a tough team to battle with,’’ Timmes said. “They are a physical team and we knew what we were up against. Obviously they are going to be a little more energized and a little more physical because this is the semifinals.’’

There was a pair of lead changes in the third quarter before Chatham went on its 9-0 run. Most of the Cougars points came on free throws although Drew Ballard gave the Cougars a huge spark with his marksmanship. Focused mainly on defense this year, Ballard knocked down a 3-pointer in the middle of the run and helped the Cougars establish a 38-30 edge at the two-minute mark.

“He did a great job guarding (Ryan) Harris when Raiola got hurt,’’ Ervin said. “He’s a senior and he’s been playing for a couple of years. He just stepped in. That’s what you ask for when someone gets hurt.’’

Chatham led 39-34 going into the fourth quarter. A 3-point play by Barry Lynch and 3-point shot by Ryan Harris cut the deficit to 41-40. Then Carson made his drive and knocked down a free throw to make it 44-40. Layups by Scott Baker and McGinley followed. Then Timmes was fouled while attempting a 3-point shot and hit all three of his free throws. The game spiraled out of Randolph’s hands.

“I think we just started taking care of the ball a little bit better,’’ Ervin said. “We just defended. We played our old school Chatham style. We didn’t press as much because I didn’t have much of a bench and we just played them straight up half court and these guys can do that.’’

The 14-0 run lasted about 5:30. Anthony Lauria’s put back with 1:18 left finally broke the Randolph drought but by that time Chatham had a commanding 55-42 lead and was thinking about another trip to the final.

“This is awesome,’’ Carson said. “This is exactly what we’ve been working for all year. We wouldn’t have it any other way.’’

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About mcvbb

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

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