Rooney’s performance lifts Chatham to title game

By Mark Kitchin

Morriscountyvarsityboysbasketball

CHATHAM — When is a freshman, not a freshman? When he plays like Jack Rooney did for Chatham on Saturday night.

Rooney scored 18 points including nine points in the fourth quarter to help Chatham to a 68-66 triumph over Orange in the North 2, Group III state semifinal contest held at Chatham High School.

Junior forward Colin McKenna added 21 points and Graham Delaney added 13 for the Cougars (20-8). Chatham plays top-seeded Colonia, a 66-53 semifinal winner over West Side, in Tuesday’s title game in Colonia.

The Cougars outscored the Tornadoes 21-16 in the fourth quarter. Delaney blocked Orange’s chance at a desperation 3-point shot in the final seconds and Chatham held on for the state tournament triumph.

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Jack Rooney’s improvement over the course of the season helped Chatham during its state run. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)

There was a lot for Chatham to talk about after the game, but much of the buzz was about Rooney, whose ball handling was imperative against the quick and aggressive Orange back court. There were some turnovers but Rooney stayed aggressive in handling the pressure and going to the basket with the game on the line.

“Jack is not a freshman any more,” Chatham coach Todd Ervin said. “He has played so many games this year. He is almost a sophomore. The fact that he has played so many games and he has played in a lot of big games. I don’t think if fazes him and he is really good obviously.”

His more experienced teammates have been amazed at his growth over the course of the season.

“Jack is the most improved player on this team by far,” Delaney said. “I don’t know how he does it. If I was a freshman out there, I couldn’t have been making some of those plays. He is just getting better each game.”

Rooney hit 5 of 6 free throws in the final 43 seconds to help the Cougars extend their lead while Orange was desperately trying to make its comeback.

“There aren’t words for the way Rooney played tonight,” McKenna said. “He was so good. His composure and his ability are just unbelievable. Especially at his age. He is 14 and he is one of the best players on the court. I’m proud of him and the way he played and the way he handled himself.”

Rooney also was able to knock down a clutch basket during an awkward moment. With 1:33 left in regulation, he leaned in between two players and seemed to be between a shot and a pass. He somehow put up an awkward shot that hit flat on the back rim and rolled in.

“They were trying to double team us and I kind of split it,” Rooney said. “I probably shouldn’t have taken it but I took it and it went in.”

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Colin McKenna (34) battled hard to keep Orange’s Keyshon Alexander from dominating inside. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)

It helped the Chatham players overall that they lost to Orange early in the season. Getting used to the pace and physicality of the Tornadoes gave them an idea of how to approach them.

“We played a bunch of teams like that,” Ervin said. “We played American History. We had a lot of teams like that on our schedule. When the states rolled around we had seen it before.”

The Chatham game plan was to limit the amount Dachon Burke and Keyshon Alexander slashed their way to the basket. The Cougars used their size and technique to limit the Tornadoes’ ability to rebound and score inside.

“We had to limit their points inside because that was how they were going to beat us,” Delaney said. “(Also by) beating us in transition and getting easy layups. Coach stressed forcing them to shoot perimeter shots and keep them out of the paint. They definitely got some easy buckets inside and easy buckets in transition but we did our best to limit that and that helped us win it at the end.”

What the Cougars didn’t count on was the marksmanship of Wesley LaFleur. Lafleur scored 17 points including four 3-pointers. His half-court heave that hit net before the first half ended gave Orange a 33-28 advantage at halftime and had the Chatham gym buzzing. However, it didn’t faze the Cougars.

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Chatham’s Tristan LeMon (4) and Niko Goles (2) keep the pressure on during Saturday’s game. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)

“We had to keep playing the way we had,” Rooney said. “We knew that it was really a two-point game. The 3-pointer was a nice shot but coach Ervin said we’ve hit shots like that. You can’t let that be a momentum changer.”

Chatham never took the lead in the third quarter but it tied Orange twice and always stayed close. A 9-1 run midway through the fourth quarter gave the Cougars the lead at 60-55 with 2:30 left. The run included a Delaney 3-pointer and driving layups by Tristan LeMon, Rooney and Stefon Goles.

Orange worked furiously to come back late. One of the biggest plays in the final seconds was made by Delaney. Chatham led 68-65 with under 10 seconds left when the senior guard blocked Alexander’s 3-point shot attempt.

“I didn’t know how much time was on the clock,” Delaney said. “There was definitely not much. I knew the kid I was guarding was quicker than me so I knew that I just tried to stay as low as I could and I timed it just right. I was able to get a good block.”

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Good things happen when Colin McKenna is on the court. (Photo by Mark Kitchin)

When LeMon grabbed the ball he was immediately fouled. Although he would miss both his free throws and the Cougars would commit an awkward foul with two seconds left, the final result was a Chatham victory and a their first chance to play in a sectional final since the days Billy Oliver roamed the court.

“When we put it together we are a tough team to beat,” McKenna said. “We just have to keep playing hard and just focus on each 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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