Raiola, Conrad key Chatham’s come-from-behind victory

By Mark Kitchin

Morriscountyvarsityboysbasketball

CHATHAM — Anyone who has ever bounced a basketball dreams about taking the last shot in a close game, but not everyone has a chance to live it. Chatham’s Robert Raiola did. With time ticking down in a game against Mendham, his desperation heave would make the difference between winning and overtime with a possible loss — he nailed it.

The senior guard knocked down a 3-point shot at the buzzer to lift Chatham to a 49-46 victory over Mendham on Friday. Senior guard Luke Conrad scored 26 points including 15 in the first half. Sophomore Colin McKenna added 13 points for the Cougars (8-3). Senior guard Alex Jacobs scored 19 and Joe Lamberto added eight points for Mendham (8-3).

Mendham tied the score at 46-all when Lamberto was fouled on a drive and sank two pressure-filled free throws with six seconds left. With Conrad covered, Chatham got the ball to Raiola at about mid-court. He had enough time for a dribble or two past the center line. He was about 32-35 feet away on the left side of the court but he had enough time to set his feet and launch a shot that drew net at the buzzer sounded. He was immediately mobbed by his thrilled teammates.

“Maybe I did it in a CYO game in seventh grade but never in this big of a game,” Raiola said of the situation. “It was a quick moving play. I don’t think both teams had time outs left. I just kind of went with it quick and tried to score.”

Raiola, who has played a key role on the Chatham varsity since his sophomore year, had hit a 3-pointer earlier in the quarter. He can score from the perimeter but he is better known for his tough-as-nails efforts on defense and his knack for taking charges, even late in games. Nothing he does surprises his teammates.

“Just to see him hit that shot, I couldn’t be happier for him,” Conrad said. “It couldn’t have happened to a better kid. He’s clutch. That’s what we say around here. Props to him. It was an amazing shot and he really stepped up.”

26 bb chatmend

Chatham’s Luke Conrad tries to dribble past Mendham defender Peter Butkus on Friday. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)

Conrad and Raiola combined for 13 of Chatham’s 17 fourth-quarter points. The ability of the seniors to step up is not surprising. They have played pivotal roles on Cougar teams that have played in the last two Morris County Tournament finals and bring a variety of experiences to the court. Conrad in particular has been important to the offense this season after overcoming an injury plagued junior year.

“I’m never surprised about what Luke can do,” Raiola said. “In my opinion he’s the best player in the county. He stepped up big in a huge game today. He was aggressive. They were keying on him and he was just going by them.”

Friday’s game was typical of a Chatham-Mendham match up in recent years. It was a tough, hard-nosed physical battle between two well-coached teams that pride themselves on defense.

“Every year Mendham is a big rival,” Raiola said. “No matter who they graduate —  no matter who Mendham has on the team — it’s a tough game. There were a lot of fouls — physical — defensively low scoring. We were lucky to win out.”

The Minutemen led for most of the contest. Mendham held a 24-16 advantage late in the second-quarter but Chatham rallied to cut the deficit to four points by halftime. The Cougars used some full-court pressure at key moments which may have flustered the Minutemen at times.

13 bb chatmend

Chatham’s Grahan Delaney has a bear hug on Mendham’s Alex Jacobs in first half action. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)

“With the press we didn’t get as many steals today, but we definitely wore them down,” Raiola said. “We scored a lot more points in the second half because of that.”

Mendham graduated some of the physical players they had up front last year. Jack Horan, Brian Kenez and Peter Butkus have become able replacements. The Minutemen still run a very deliberate offense, with multiple picks and screens designed to create chances for backdoor layups or open 3-point shots.

“They were going to be aggressive with us,” Conrad said. “We came out with the mentality that we should give it right back to them and kind of push through on rebounding and going through screens. Whenever we play Mendham we are going to have to grind it out for 32 minutes.”

Mendham led 40-32 with six minutes left in the game, when Chatham went on a 13-1 run to jump ahead. The five-minute spree included a Conrad 3-pointer to take the lead at 43-41 with 2:08 left. After a Mendham turnover, Conrad hit a driving layup with 1:22 left to make it a 4-point game.

“I like being a player that demands the ball in crunch time and I want to have the ball down the stretch,” Conrad said.

However so does Mendham standout Jacobs. He knocked down a top-of-the-key 3-pointer with 1:09 left to make it 45-44. After a time out, Chatham lost the ball on an over-and-back call at mid-court. The Minutemen possession accounted for a pair of misses by Horan before they lost the ball out of bounds.

27 bb chatmendChatham’s Robert Raiola knocked down the game-winning shot. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)

The Cougars controlled the ball and as time wound down, the Minutemen were forced to foul. They chose McKenna, a sophomore forward who is improving with every varsity game.

“Colin is a young kid,” Raiola said. “He was playing jayvee last year. To step up to the free throw line, it’s a big thing. We shoot free throws every day and he works hard so I wasn’t surprised at all. He got bodied up but I thought he adapted well inside.”

McKenna missed his first shot but sank the second with 16.2 left to make it 46-44. Mendham worked the ball up and got a chance to tie when Lamberto pushed the ball to the basket and was fouled in the lane. The feisty 5-foot-10 athlete swished both free throws to tie the game up with only six seconds on the clock.

30 bb chatmendStefan Goles is one of the Chatham sophomores being asked to step up on the varsity level. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)

It seemed like a game destined for overtime but Raiola had other ideas. The win could prove to be an important one for the Cougars especially since Chatham was coming off a loss to West Morris on Wednesday.

“West Morris was a tough game,” Raiola said. “We were kind of looking forward to this game. With county seeds coming out soon, it’s a huge game to win. We will build on it. We have Roxbury next. We just have to focus on the next game.”

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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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