By Mark Kitchin
RANDOLPH — The Mount Olive boys basketball coaches and players had an inkling that Mendham was going to use a strategy on them that the Marauders have never encountered in the past. It was something they truly couldn’t prepare to battle against. They had to trust that their players would find a way to handle it — and they did.
Slowing the tempo down still couldn’t stop Mount Olive in its 62-40 triumph over Mendham on Saturday. Rashaan Spencer scored 22 points to lift the Marauders and help them advance to play Morristown in next Saturday’s final at the County College of Morris in Randolph.
When Mendham and Mount Olive met on January 25 the result was a 71-63 Marauders’ triumph. In that game in Mendham, the Minutemen had a healthy Alex Jacobs and didn’t mind running with the high-octane, fast-break Marauders style. When Jacobs, the team’s top scorer, had his season ended with a wrist injury, Mendham has had to adopt a slower pace much like it did late last year. Did they really think they could keep Mount Olive’s high-scoring, breakneck style of play in check? It wasn’t a bad idea.
“I think with the absence of Jacobs they decided that they were going to do that,” Mount Olive coach Kevin Moore said. “There’s no way of preparing for it because it’s the polar opposite of what we try to do. It’s even hard to get our scout team to do that in practice. We tried to simulate it in anticipation (of Mendham using it) but even our scout team has a hard time holding onto the ball.”
Going into the game the pressure was squarely on the defending champs. However, the Marauders had some intangible advantages. Most notably playing at CCM the last three seasons and knowing what to expect from the different atmosphere.
“We couldn’t sense (nerves) at all today,” Moore said. “We didn’t anticipate it as an issue, that there would be any nervousness. We’ve played here now for three years.”
Mendham had not played a game at CCM since they won it all in 2011. Often this intangible shows up early in games. Mount Olive got off to a 22-13 first-quarter lead with 14 of those points coming off Spencer’s hands.
“We were hot from the beginning. We were hitting a lot of shots,” Mount Olive’s Donte Wise said. “Rashaan does a lot for us. When he gets hot, we just give him the ball so he can do what he has to do.”
Mendham hung in the game with a successful second quarter. Once it broke Mount Olive’s full-court ball press, the Minutemen worked the ball around the Marauders 2-3 zone. Several times they thought twice and about contesting the 6-foot-8 Heeman inside or the leaping ability of Wise. They passed up opportunities and worked for a better percentage shot. As a result the Minutemen outscored the Marauders 13-12 in the second quarter and were still in the game, down just 34-26 at the half.
At halftime, the Mount Olive players were annoyed with themselves for letting Mendham take control of the game.
“That’s how they (Mendham) play and that’s how they’ve been since I’ve been playing them,” Heeman said. “They are very fundamentally sound and they are going to make you work for every basket they can get and they are going to make sure that they can get the best basket that they can. In the first half they got a lot of the easy shots that they wanted. The main thing was effort. I thought we picked it up in the second half.”
As a result, the Marauders had to boost their energy level and attitude. Heeman said that the Minutemen were getting to more 50-50 balls and that had to stop.
“We shifted our focus at halftime to the front court,” Moore said. “We decided we were going to go back to the first pass trap and do the things that we do well which is applying pressure rather than play their game which is trying to control the ball in the half court.”
Jason Drury knocked down a 3-point shot to start the third quarter and give the Marauders their first double-digit lead. It triggered a 15-1 run in the period with nine of those points coming from Heeman. Meanwhile, the Minutemen went 0 for 4 from the floor and turned the ball over eight times. By the end of the third quarter, Mount Olive had a 52-29 advantage going into the final period. A return trip to the MCT final was almost assured.
“It’s a great feeling,” Heeman said. It’s been a lot of work in over the years. To finally put it together and go for another championship is a great feeling.”