A zone of one and then some for Mount Olive

By Mark Kitchin

Morriscountyvarsityboysbasketball

RANDOLPH — Mount Olive’s victory in the title game of the Morris County Tournament can best be described as the result of the hard work of many and a zone of one.

Everyone with a Marauders uniform who stepped onto the court in Saturday’s final made a contribution. The zone of one was the ability of center Zach Heeman to help out every time an opponent made a serious move toward the basket.

Mount Olive defeated Chatham 67-54 to earn the school’s first Morris County Tournament title and set a school record with 21 victories in the season. Rashaan Spencer led the second-seeded Marauders with 12 points. Heeman scored six but largely earned Most Valuable Player honors with his defensive exploits. He grabbed 18 rebounds and five blocked shots. He also altered many of the Cougars scoring attempts including some in the fourth quarter when the defending champions were in a scoring drought.

Like many tournament titles, the seeds of victory were sown in a previous defeat. The revenge of last year’s 77-75 loss to Chatham in last year’s MCT final had been on the minds of Mount Olive players since the moment it happened.

“It’s huge,’’ Mount Olive coach Kevin Moore said. “It’s something that we came in with from last season. It was one of our goals to return here and make things right. We wanted Chatham. Since December that’s what we wanted.’’

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Zach Heeman’s ability to contest shots made it difficult for Chatham on the offensive end. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)

The Marauders defeated Morristown-Beard, Mendham and a tough Morristown team in the semifinal for the right to return to the title contest. The players that were involved in last year’s contest felt much more comfortable in the title game and events surrounding it.

“We were more aware this year,’’ Heeman said. “Last year they had a loss to Madison leading up to it and this year they did the same thing. They lost to Mendham and we knew it was a false setting. We knew it had nothing to do with the (title) game on Saturday. We started off real slow but kept playing.’’

Mount Olive also developed a defensive game plan that involved the coverage of Chatham’s Joe Timmes, the Cougars’ standout scorer.

“We face guarded him the entire game and rotated fresh bodies on him the entire game,’’ Moore said. “I don’t know how many he ended up with but last game he scored 25 points against us. We just face guarded him. No help. You don’t leave him. We threw four different guys at him.’’

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Mount Olive made sure that Chatham’s Joe Timmes never got an easy shot. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)

Anthony Verrone, Jason Drury, Bobby Corpion and Zach Mears were selected to do the job. They were young players — Mears is the only senior — that didn’t have any specific offensive responsibilities although combined they scored 19 points. Timmes, who averages 15 points, was held to nine points and only two of them in the second half.

The other defensive strategy had Heeman, using all of his 6-foot-8 size and long arms under the basket as a limiting and intimidating factor. He didn’t guard anyone in particular although Chatham tried their best to draw him out with center Brian Oliver hitting a couple of long-range threes. Mount Olive stuck to its strategy.

“I don’t necessarily have to block every shot but if I can alter a shot,’’ Heeman said. “I think that’s enough and that bothers some kids. That definitely helped a lot today.’’

Offensively, it was difficult for Heeman to find offensive openings against the Chatham defenders. Other players had to get involved in the offense and they did. The Mount Olive offense was pretty well balanced with 10 different players getting into the scoring column. Six different players knocked down 3-point shots

“Our role players hit shots,’’ Heeman said. “I knew they were going to hit them. They kept working every day. They improved so much. It was a big stage and they hit the shots.’’

The Marauders focus much of their offense around 3-point shooting and use equipment that emphasizes shooting skills in practice. They may focus on that aspect of the game more than any other team in Morris County.

“It was a collective effort,’’ Moore said of the offense. “Verrone hit some big shots, (Chris) Grillo hit some big shots, Drury hit some big shots and that was all freshmen and sophomores.’’

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Mount Olive’s Bruce Stenson was one of 10 players that contributed to the Marauders’ offense. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)

The Cougars were no pushovers and seemed to be ready to defend their title to the end. They had some energy and momentum early with the help of Luke Conrad. The junior guard was the team’s second leading scorer until he suffered a concussion against Randolph and missed eight games, all in the month of February. He scored eight points and looked to be in good shape for someone who has missed so much time.

Chatham’s team also included seven seniors that knew that sacrifice it took to return to the championship game and what it would mean to win again in their final season on the court. Chatham took a 36-29 edge at halftime helped by a 6-2 run in which all the Cougars’ points were scored by Rob Raiola. During the halftime break, Moore didn’t talk about technical matters as much as he did emotional ones.

“We talked about heart,’’ Mount Olive guard Steven Leonardo said. “We had no heart whatsoever. We came back in the second half and we delivered.’’

Trailing 38-29 early in the period, Traub knocked down back-to-back 3-point shots to give the Marauders some life.

“We came in with a 32 set,’’ Moore said. “It was a screen with a roll back high. Those were huge baskets. That kind of energized us. We needed that jolt of energy.’’

A 10-2 run early in the third quarter, helped by Traub’s threes, gave Mount Olive a 41-40 edge with 3:52 left in the period. There were three lead changes and three ties for the rest of the quarter.

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Mount Olive’s Kevin Moore talked to his players about heart at halftime. The Marauders showed him their hearts in the second half. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)

The Cougars led 52-50 going into the final period but it fell apart for them. Chatham missed 14 consecutive shots from the floor during the first six minutes of the fourth quarter. It was a perplexing turn of events for Chatham which — unlike many of Mount Olive’s opponents — has adopted a more upbeat style and has enough depth to be fresh late in the game.

“ I think maybe once they started missing it might have gotten into their heads a little bit,’’ Chatham coach Todd Ervin guessed. “We got the shots we wanted. We just didn’t make them.’’

The Mount Olive players pointed to Spencer’s 3-point play as a big turning point. The Marauders’ point guard averages close to 20 points a game. He excels on drawing contact on the drive and has the strength to put up off-balance shots which occasionally go in. His driving score and subsequent free throw gave Mount Olive a 58-52 edge with 3:25 remaining.

“It was such a big momentum switch,’’ Leonardo said. “Ray wasn’t having that good of a night. That and-one helped us so much.’’

Mount Olive would score five more points on free throws by Grillo, Spencer and Verrone before Scott Baker ended the Cougars’ six-minute scoring drought with a layup. By then the score was 63-54 with two minutes left. It wasn’t over, but the Cougars never hit another shot as four more long-distance efforts were taken only to clang off the CCM rim. They were corralled by the Marauders who were soon to be crowned champions.

“So many people said it was going to be a rebuilding year,’’ Heeman said. “We were losing eight seniors. We had good players and they knew they just had to deliver. We kept working every day. It finally paid off in the end.’’

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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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