By Mark Kitchin
JEFFERSON TWP. — The Jefferson Falcons heard the whispers. That they played in a weak league. They were a first-half team. When times were tough they always faded.
Well those whispers deserved an answer – on Tuesday they sent one loud and clear by defeating West Milford 63-59. The win helped the Falcons advance in North 1, Group III state tournament play. The fourth seeded team will host fifth-seeded Old Tappan on Thursday.
Jefferson gutted out a difficult victory and showed its detractors that it doesn’t matter who you play as much as it does how you play.
“Most people look at our league (NJAC-Freedom) and say we don’t deserve all the wins (18) that we have,’’ Jefferson point guard Bryan Langan said. “Coming out and beating a great team like that shows everyone that our division is better than what people are saying.’’
West Milford only had nine wins to its credit this year but it plays in a league with Passaic Valley and Paterson Kennedy which gives it some credibility. There were those that questioned Jefferson’s ability to stay with a team that loves to shoot the three and put the pressure on like the Highlanders. Even when the Falcons were able to put together a 35-23 halftime margin, no one including the Jefferson players thought the lead was a safe one.
Jefferson Coach Joe DiGennaro has faith in his Falcons. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)
“Hackettstown was similar,’’ Jefferson coach Joe DiGennaro said. “We thought these guys made Hackettstown look conservative with the way they shoot the ball. Hackettstown is all perimeter, too. That was our one consistent challenge.’’
At halftime DiGennaro also addressed the elephant in the room. The last time the Falcons played at home in tournament competition, they were upset by Randolph in overtime in the opening round of the Morris County Tournament. In that game Jefferson had a 33-22 halftime advantage and let it melt away.
“I told them they were going to take something positive from the Randolph game,’’ DiGennaro said. “We remembered how they came out in the third quarter with their physicality. We were going to try to match it. The kids knew exactly what we were talking about.’’
The Falcons were definitely tested but they had the skills and the confidence to come out on top. They also got good performances by Langan, who has been in and out of the lineup with ankle trouble and senior swingman Trevor Thompson who missed nearly two months with a broken hand.
“He just came back two days ago,’’ DiGennaro said. “He’s still been trying to get back in shape. He’s been hitting big threes for us. He’s the one kid that can play guard and forward. He’s a tweener. He can play one of four spots and that’s pretty important for us.’’
Another often overlooked player was senior forward Danny Brown who grabbed some key rebounds including one that cemented the win.
“Danny is the most athletic kid on our team,’’ junior forward Tyler Jones said. “He’s always hustling, grabbing boards and he never stops working.’’
Jefferson’s Tyler Jones draws plenty of attention from opposing defenses. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)
West Milford rallied in the second half because of their 3-point shooting. Threes by Tom Pegel, and the Baskets (Luke and Noah) whittled a 16-point Jefferson lead down to eight by the end of the third quarter. The Highlanders ability to hit from deep, spread out the Falcons defense and affected their ability to rebound.
“You extend out more, definitely on the shooters and you have to be more cautious,’’ Langan said. “We didn’t help (defense) as much because we had to watch out for the shooters.’’
When West Milford’s Quentin Pharis, who had done nothing offensively for three quarters, started driving to the basket in lanes that were opened up because of West Milford’s perimeter proclivities, Jefferson seemed to be in trouble. The Highlanders cut the Falcons’ lead to 51-49 at the 5-minute mark. Jefferson bounced back on a layup by Vin Ginefra and some timely free throw shooting. The Falcons built up their biggest lead of the fourth-quarter at 58-50 with about 3:30 left but it still wasn’t a comfortable advantage.
“A team that presses like that and shoots threes the way they shoot threes is never out of the game,’’ DiGennaro said.
West Milford went on a 7-0 run that included a 3-pointer by Noah Basket and a jumper by Luke Basket that would have tied the game if his right foot didn’t touch the 3-point arc.
“We knew that they were dangerous shooters but we also heard to watch out for the Baskets,’’ Jones said. “We just had to come out and stop them.’’
Jefferson’s Bryan Langan had no doubt that his last second free throws would hit nothing but net. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)
The final two minutes were pretty wild with both teams getting and missing scoring opportunities. One of the craziest sequences occurred around the 20-second mark with Jefferson clinging to a 60-58 lead. Langan stripped West Milford’s Mike Otero of the ball and started looking about in an effort to run out the clock, but Otero ended up coming from behind and stealing it right back and drawing a foul from Langan.
“I was just hoping the kid was going to miss his foul shots,’’ Langan said.
Langan got half his wish. Otero went 1 for 2 with 18.6 seconds left. Langan was fouled on the inbounds and earned his chance to be a hero. He was completely confident about his free throws.
“I had to make these,’’ Langan said. “I was hitting before so … I just had to go up there and hit them.’’
Langan calmly knocked down both to make it 62-59 lead with 17 seconds left and West Milford called time out. In the huddle DiGennaro said a lot of things but there were two words that could clearly be made out during the raucous noise in the Jefferson gym. “One stop”, he said and his players nodded in agreement.
West Milford went for the 3-point shot and got a decent look but Otero’s long range effort bounced off the rim. Brown grabbed the ball and got it to Langan who was fouled with 1.7 seconds left. He needed only one free throw to seal the victory and help the Falcons to fly another day.
“The win is a big thing for us,’’ Jones said. “Everyone thought we were going to be the underdogs. We came out and showed them and proved them wrong.’’