By Mark Kitchin
MOUNTAIN LAKES — It flies in the face of logic that a team could lose a game by 40 points and then a week later in the first round of state tournament play beat the same opponent. Then again no one said high school basketball was logical.
Senior guard Evan Argirou hit three consecutive free throws with 4.6 seconds left and Kinnelon held on to upset Mountain Lakes 51-50 in the opening round of North 1, Group II play state tournament play on Monday.
Argirou scored 19 points and Sean Robbins added 14 for the 12th-seeded Colts (8-16). Kinnelon will play Newton, a 57-45 victor over Wallkill Valley, in the quarterfinal round.
Chris Herring scored 13 points and Paul Tarnawski added 12 for fifth-seeded Mountain Lakes (16-8). The victory was a stunning result considering the two teams played each other on February 19 and the Lakers dominated the Colts with a 71-31 victory in Kinnelon.
Evan Argirou, right, scored 19 points and had three big free throws for Kinnelon on Monday. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)
“We didn’t have a good week of practice for that game,’’ Argirou admitted. “We weren’t really focused. Today some of us lost it a little bit near the end but we were able to regroup and get it done.’’
The Colts had plenty of incentives. Seniors like Argirou, Robbins, Sean Walsh and R. J. Giannetti, who have been playing on varsity since they were freshman, had never won a state game. They were also determined to gain a little revenge against their neighboring rivals after such a tough defeat.
“It never feels good to lose to (Mountain Lakes) by that amount of points,’’ Argirou said. “We knew we had to redeem ourselves, so we came out, played hard and beat them.’’
Robbins agreed although he understands how unpredictable the game can become sometimes.
“It’s crazy with basketball,’’ Robbins said. “There are a lot of highs and lows. We will be playing slow and cold and have a stagnant offense. It’s not your day. We got really hot today. We all played within ourselves and we got it done.’’
The players were also motivated to give their coach at least one more victory. Rivers has already announced that he is resigning at the end of the season and that his family is moving to Texas.
“You have nights when you play lousy and you have nights when you play better,’’ Rivers said. “I thought the 40-point night was a fluke.’’
Rivers recently watched sports movies like “Miracle” and “Hoosiers’’ to try and find something to inspire his team this week. In the end he decided that it was the confidence they had in each other that would ultimately make the difference. Kinnelon had lost to Mountain Lakes twice this year, but there were signs that this time might be different
“The school is having a blood drive tomorrow and I heard Sean Robbins tell someone. ‘I can’t give blood. We’ve got practice tomorrow.’ Rivers said. “A friend of mine came over from Pennsylvania today and I thought about hanging with him and driving to the game. Then I thought I’d better take the bus. This may be my last go around.’’
It wasn’t. It may have been the highlight of the season or perhaps a stepping stone to something even better.
The game was filled with plenty of interesting individual matchups. Kinnelon’s Giannetti, ranked among the top 20 rebounders in the state, and Tarnawski battled the boards all night until Giannetti fouled out late.
Outgoing Kinnelon coach Sean Rivers explains about guarding the inbounds to his players. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)
Another interesting matchup developed between Lakers point guard Chris Cuccinello and Colts stalwart defender Sean Walsh. Cuccinello ran the offense with a hand in his face all night.
“Sean is a tough kid,’’ Rivers said. “It’s just one of those things where again everything fell into place and these guys have guts like nobody I’ve ever coached.’’
It was clear from the opening tap that the Colts weren’t going away. They led 11-9 at the end of the first quarter and 25-19 at the half. Kinnelon slowed the pace down and kept ahead by hitting timely 3-point shots. Defensively, they were well aware of Mountain Lakes’ ability to knock down threes. They limited the Lakers to five long-range makes.
“We wanted to slow the game down,’’ Robbins said. “They have a bunch of good shooters. They were pretty cold today. They are pretty streaky so we wanted to control the game and not let them get out on the fast break. Boxing out and slowing them down in transition were two of the major points in our game.’’
The Colts took a 39-34 edge going into the fourth quarter and posted their biggest lead when Argirou made a 3-point shot with 4:42 left to make it a 44-36 game. He knocked down four threes overall.
“I’ve struggled over the past few games and then in the last game I hit six 3-pointers,’’ Argirou said. “I’ve been feeling good. I had a good warmup and I came out and I was able to make some tough shots.’’
The Lakers bounced back with a 10-2 run highlighted with 3-point shots by Ramiz Knizer and Sam Walsh. They tied the game at 46 on a pair of free throws by Herring with 2:20 left. Prospects looked bleak for the Colts with about a minute left when Herring and Giannetti collided on a play. Giannetti fell down hard and momentarily lost his temper as he sat on the floor by whipping the ball at Herring’s knees. He was whistled for a technical foul — his fifth foul — taking away the team’s most physical defender and hard-nosed rebounder.
Kinnelon’s Tommy Rago had to come off the bench to shoot for Giannetti but missed the free throw for Herring’s foul. Herring knocked down a pair of free throws on Giannetti’s technical with 1:07 left which tied the game at 48-all. Rather than fading, the play made the Colts more resilient. Ahman White came off the bench and gave Kinnelon a good effort.
“It got a little chippy, a little crazy but we have a lot of guys who are four-year players,’’ Argirou said. “We’ve been there before so we all knew to keep our heads and stay in the game.’’
Kinnelon’s R.J. Giannetti and Mountain Lakes’ Paul Tarnawski battled for rebounds all night. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)
The Lakers were awarded possession and took the lead on a Tarnawski layup from a Herring feed with 42 seconds remaining. The Colts worked for a shot to tie. They thought the got it when Robbins drove to the right side, leaned into his defender and banked a shot in. Instead he was whistled on a disputed traveling call
“I get travel calls where I do a long two step and I guess it looks like three because it takes so long.’’ Robbins said. “When you get bad breaks, you have to keep your head in the game, be focused and stay positive.’’
The Colts were forced to foul Herring and he missed a pair of free throws with 11.3 seconds left. Kinnelon gained possession and Argirou was fouled on his shot attempt from just behind the arc. He hit the first two, and then after a Lakers time out in an attempt to freeze him, canned the third to make it a 51-50 game.
“He’s been doing that for years where he has been fouled on that shot,’’ Rivers said. “He pump faked the first time and took the second. I knew he was going to get fouled and I just hoped that it was for a three.’’
Argirou, who along with Robbins played on Kinnelon’s state championship football team, is the Colts kicker. He knocks down free throws and relishes the pressure that comes with being put in a tough spot.’’
“We shoot a lot of them in practice,’’ Argirou said. “We do a lot of running so we are tired when we take them. You get in that situation where you are tired and you have to knock down shots. I love pressure. I thrive with it. I just had to focus on the line.’’
Mountain Lakes still had a chance to tie or win. The Lakers got the ball past half-court and called time out again. On the next inbounds, the ball ended up in the hands of Knizer, who had five points during the Lakers fourth-quarter run. He stumbled while making a move to the basket and collided with Kinnelon’s White for a foul on the floor. Knizer was awarded a pair of free throws with 1.6 seconds left. However, both bounced off the rim and White scrambled to secure the ball as the buzzer sounded.
“We gave them a couple of chances,’’ Rivers said. “We made it interesting.’’
Now it will be interesting to see if the underdog Colts can continue with more state tournament success.
“It’s exciting,’’ Robbins said. “This is the best part of the year to get hot and get on a roll,’’
Sean Robbins scored 14 points to help Kinnelon earn a state tournament triumph on Monday. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)
State tournament results
North 1, Group IV
Randolph 78, Wayne Valley 65 – The Rams led 40 – 27 at halftime and maintained a sizable lead the rest of the way. Randolph improves to 11-13.
Passaic Tech 68, Morris Knolls 56 – Passaic Tech led 32-22 at the half and went on a 19-9 third-quarter run to secure the win. Hugo Jimenez scored 12 points and Brian O’Neill added 11 for the Golden Eagles (12-13).
North 1, Group II
Pequannock 51, Lakeland 43 – Trailing 38-34 the Golden Panthers rallied with a 17-5 fourth quarter effort. Kurt Weinmann scored 17 points and Kevin Glynn added 11 for Pequannock.
Pascack Hills 72, Dover 43 — The Tigers finish at 10-14.
North 2, Group II
Hanover Park 67, Garfield 65 – A 21-13 fourth quarter effort sparked the Hornets to a come-from-behind win on their home court. Matt Williams scored 25 points and Max Reynolds added 14 for Hanover Park (18-4). Garfield finishes at (16-10).
Newark Tech 94, Madison 45 – Newark Tech took a 27-7 advantage in the first quarter and pulled away. The Dodgers finish at 8-17.