By Mark Kitchin
RANDOLPH — Everyone knows about Groundhog Day. Mendham boys basketball is undergoing a Groundhog season. However, Jack Horan was in nobody’s shadow on Sunday.
The senior forward scored 27 points in Mendham’s 55-45 triumph over Randolph in the Morris County Tournament quarterfinals at Randolph High School. The Minutemen (13-6) will face defending champion Mount Olive in next week’s semifinals.
Horan’s 12-point second quarter helped Mendham build a 26-14 halftime advantage. Randolph tried to rally late and got as close as 39-35 with about 3:30 remaining in regulation. A 6-0 run by Horan helped the Minutemen put it back to a double-digit advantage and Mendham hit its free throws in the final minute.
“It’s an incredible feeling going into county college (for the semifinals),” Horan said. “I’m so happy that we are in this position.”
The reason the last two Mendham seasons have a similar feel is that high scoring guard Alex Jacobs suffered a season-ending injury for the second year in a row. Just like last year, Mendham has been forced to make a series of changes in its lineup and its approach. Unlike last year, the Minutemen have a better idea of what adjustments they needed to make.
“Obviously it’s a big loss for us,” Horan said. “It’s become more of a team game. (Jacobs) gave us a lot of scoring when he was here. Since he got hurt we kind of spread the wealth among the team. Everyone has done an incredible job sharing the points.
“The same exact thing happened last year. Even after it happened, guys stepped up. Nick D’Elia, Joey Lamberto, last year they did an incredible job stepping up so we knew once Alex went down it wasn’t the end for us. We had to keep fighting.”
Jacobs averaged around 18 points a game. Mendham can find a way to get a few points here and there and focus on defense to help keep their opponents down. It does help that the many of the players that were asked to step up last year, are the ones that will be stepping up again.
“That was the big thing I could always say,” Mendham coach Kevin Schmid said. “It happened last year. It’s the same guys, D’Elia, Lamberto and Jack (Horan). That helps a lot. It makes the blow a little bit less than it could have been. We are looking for ways to score. We’re doing something for Jack to get him open and for Dan Shea to make shots for us or perhaps a few more than when Alex was around.”
Mendham’s strategy to continue their success this season is surprisingly simple and focuses basically on teamwork and the skills of the group.
“We have to take shots that we practice and make passes that we practice,” Schmid said. “Don’t try to do things that you are not capable of doing. That was the biggest thing. We talk about dribble, pass, catch and shoot. If we do those four things fundamentally, we will be fine. … These kids are great. I’ve worked them hard the last couple of days of practice. They responded (against Randolph) . It was all them.”
There were a couple things that Mendham did against Randolph that helped it on the technical level. The Minutemen played particular attention to the screens that Rams’ big men Patrick Archer and Greg Moserowitz set to free up Randolph shooters Lynch and Michael Talbert. Lynch did finish with 22 points but he had to work hard for his shots.
“The big guys Archer and Moserowitz, they like to set a lot of ball screens and Talbert and Lynch like to come off that,” Horan said. “That’s what happened when we came here last week (in a 43-34 loss) so we really put an emphasis on ball screens and we worked defensively on that.”
It was also important for Mendham to get a lead in the early stages. Even though Randolph High is considered a neutral site, the 12th-seeded Rams were certain to get a good crowd in their home gym. The Minutemen got some quick points early by breaking Randolph’s full-court pressure for open layups.
“We knew we could beat them in transition,” Horan said. “We watched them on film. A lot of teams have gotten points on transition, especially against their press. We worked a lot on press break against their various presses. We were able to get some two-on-ones and three-on-twos.”
It also helped that Horan had an exceptional game. His 27-point performance was a season-high but he had notched several 20-plus point games this season. The six-foot, three-inch athlete has been a solid rebounder and secondary scorer. Horan may not be the most skillful player. However, his athleticism and toughness go a long way and his competitiveness stepped up when Mendham needed it most.
“He gained a lot of confidence playing football,” Schmid said. “That just carried over to basketball. He is a great athlete. He hit a couple of threes in the first half and he did a great job for us.”
Horan scored 17 of his 27 in the first half when Mendham built a 26-14 advantage. Randolph made its runs. A 3-pointer by Lynch made it 30-25 with a minute left in the third quarter, but Mendham rallied and had a double-digit advantage at 38-28 with four minutes left in the game.
Randolph had one last rally in it. The Rams had a 7-1 run which included a Lynch 3-pointer to make it 39-35 around the 3-minute mark. Horan countered with a six-point run of his own. The dagger may have been a jumper he knocked down with about two-minutes left which made it a 45-35 game.
“I was second guessing that shot,” Horan said. “I figured I was open so why not? ”