Total team effort lifted Mount Olive to title game

By Mark Kitchin


RANDOLPH – It didn’t seem like a big deal to Ryan Traub. The junior center was doing something that he had been doing all season. Only this time his small act produced big results. It put Mount Olive back into the county final.

Traub put back an Anthony Verrone shot attempt with 16.1 seconds remaining to account for the winning points in Mount Olive’s 62-60 victory over Morristown in the Morris County Tournament semifinals on Saturday.

Zach Heeman scored 19 points including his first two 3-point shots of the season and Rashaan Spencer added 12 for second-seeded Mount Olive. It is the third appearance in the finals for the Marauders and the second in the last two years.

Junior point guard Sean Hoehn scored 28 points for third-seeded Morristown. Ryan Brunnock added 13 points and put up a shot attempt to tie the game which bounced out in the finals seconds.

“The ball went off the glass and just came to me,’’ Traub said. “I just put it in like I’ve done over and over again.

“There’s no quit in us. We come to fight. If were down, were down. We always think we are going to come up with the “W”.’’

It was the efforts of Traub, Verrone and many others that helped the Marauders advance in a performance that was not up to their usual standards. The Colonials, which had not gone to a county final in nearly a decade, did not shrink from the spotlight. At times Morristown played more like Mount Olive than the Marauders did. Mount Olive persevered but it wasn’t easy.

“Regardless of the circumstances these guys don’t quit,’’ Mount Olive coach Kevin Moore said. “They just keep grinding and clawed back into it. I think we were fortunate.’’

“It was mental breakdowns,’’ Heeman said. “I think it was a combination of us not crashing the boards as hard and then not getting back on defense. They were getting open layups. They weren’t even working for them at one point.’’

Heeman, a 6-foot-8 center got in foul trouble early, forcing Traub, at 6-foot-7, to spell him with some minutes at center. Hard work by Morristown’s Trey Davis and Zach Certner kept Heeman from getting good shots offensively. So much that he shocked his coach and teammates by hitting his first two 3-point shots of the season.

“I wasn’t getting anything going so I thought ‘why not?  We really weren’t playing well at all,’’ Heeman said.

Spencer, who along with Heeman averages close to 20 points a contest, could not get his game on track either. He was hounded by Morristown’s A. J. Tracy and only knocked down two field goals all game. Seven of his 12 points came off free throws on drives to the basket that he couldn’t finish.

Overall, Morristown could be proud of its performance, its first in the MCT semifinals in 10 years, even though the result ultimately ended up in a loss.

“They do a really good job of following what we are trying to do,’’ Morristown coach Bill Connolly said of his players. “That’s one of the areas where they have made the biggest improvement. They follow the plan that we put together for them. They do the best that they can to execute it for the most part – except for a possession here and a possession there — they followed what we were trying to do offensively and defensively. We just came up a possession short at the end.’’

Morristown was the only team that did not play in last year’s final four. Their efforts proved they were ready to compete under pressure on a big stage.

“We knew what we had to do to come into the game,’’ Hoehn said. “We stuck to the game plan. Unfortunately they followed their game plan a little bit better. There was just a couple key plays that we wanted to have back.’’

Mount Olive led 30-27 at halftime but Morristown outscored its opponents 26-17 to take a 53-47 advantage going into the final period. Hoehn, the junior point guard, scored nine points during the run and impressed everyone with his poise and effort in the semifinal contest.

204 bb mctsemi

Mount Olive’s Steve Leonardo applies some defensive pressure but also proved he could knock down some shots. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)

“We knew he was a good shooter,’’ Heeman said. “ We knew that the ball was going to be in his hands. We played against a guy who is a lot like that on Sparta – Zach Frick — so we tried to do the same thing with him. He shot well. We just tried to contain him enough to win it.’’

It was a group effort in the fourth quarter that made the difference for the Marauders. Mount Olive has had to make comebacks before, including wins against Sparta and Morris Knolls from seemingly insurmountable margins. The Marauders have a firm belief that there is no deficit that can’t be overcome.

“We didn’t have concerns because we had been in that spot before,’’ Leonardo said. “We told ourselves we were going to win this game and we came out winners.’’

Mount Olive started the fourth quarter with an 11-4 run. Spencer sparked it by stripping the ball from an opponent at center court, and after a time out making the possession count by knocking down his only 3-pointer and just his second field goal of the game.

“He kept fighting,’’ Moore said of Spencer. “He tried to shoot his way out of it and that was what we told him to do.’’

A pair of free throws by Leonardo put Mount Olive ahead 58-57 at the 2:22 mark. After Hoehn missed a 3-pointer, Spencer fed Leonardo in the lane and he connected on a short jumper to make it a 3-point Marauders’ lead with 1:33 left.

“I came off a screen and I was wide open,’’ Leonardo said. “I had the confidence in taking the shot. My teammates thought I could make it so I just shot it.’’

“Steve is a senior leader,’’ Moore said. “He’s been doing that for awhile. Those were big shots in big spots. Our hats are off to him. We recognized him in the locker room (afterwards). He refused to let us lose that game tonight.’’

A Morristown miss was followed by a Mount Olive turnover. Then Hoehn drove to just outside the arc and knocked down a 3-point shot with 40 seconds left to tie the game at 60 and send the Colonials fans into a frenzy.

On Mount Olive’s next possession, Verrone, a sophomore, was the unlikely choice to put up a shot. A lacrosse player and good all-around athlete, he is among the key players triggering Marauders defensive pressure. However, he found space driving to the right side of the lane. His shot was put up a little too hard, but Traub was parked to the left of the hoop. He just grabbed the ball and put it right back up.

“I’m pretty sure he got hacked,’’ Traub said. “It went high off the glass and right into my hands.’’

“He kept us in it,’’ Moore said of Traub. “(Leonardo and Traub) are the two guys that are x-factors for us. We know what they are going to do to Zach and Ray (Rashaan) struggled a little bit today so it came down to those other guys.’’

Verrone and Leonardo double-teamed Hoehn as he took the ball and drove it past mid-court before Morristown called time out with 10.9 seconds left. Practically everyone in the gym knew that Hoehn had to be the one to take a final shot for Morristown, and probably a game-winning 3-pointer since some of the Colonials were in foul trouble. Defensively, Mount Olive employed a similar tactic on him that it had done against Sparta’s Frick.

“We thought Hoehn was going to get it,’’ Leonardo said. “We were ready for Hoehn. We were waiting for him to catch it but they didn’t go to him.’’

It ended up in the hands of senior guard Brunnock. He found space in the lane, and like he had done numerous times before, he pushed to the basket.

“The play was designed for me to catch the ball,’’ Brunnock said. “Sean was going to go to the basket and I was going to hit him with a bounce pass for a layup. I saw that two guys were on him. I figured I wanted to get to the front of the rim and maybe draw a foul but it didn’t go in.’’

There were two seconds left when Mount Olive was awarded the ball on the inbounds. Zach Mears was able to get the ball to Heeman who heard the buzzer and whipped the ball towards the ceiling. The Marauders were back in the final and a few hours later got their fondest wish – a game against Chatham in a rematch of last year’s final. It will also give them another chance for the program’s first MCT title.

“We want Chatham,’’ Heeman said. “It just feels good to get back for the guys that were there last year.’’


About mcvbb

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

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