It didn’t come easily, but the Lions men’s basketball team picked up two pivotal New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) victories over Kean University and William Paterson University in three games this week.
“Any win in the NJAC at this stage in the season is a good win,” head coach John Castaldo said.
The College had to stave off a late comeback from Kean to post an 81-70 victory over the Cougars on Saturday afternoon.
With the Lions leading by as many as 18 points early in the second half, the Cougars assembled a 30-14 run that shrunk the Lions’ lead to 66-64 with 4:59 remaining. The Lions responded with a 15-6 run to finish the game and keep the victory intact.
All five starters reached double digits for the Lions, including a team-high 18 points from senior guard Derick Grant. Junior forward Bobby Davison added 12 points and a game-high 11 boards, while senior guard Mike Snyder chipped in 14 points, eight rebounds and four assists.
The College outlasted William Paterson University, one of the tougher teams in the NJAC with the third-ranked defense in the nation, for a 65-58 conference win on Monday night.
“Without question, they are ranked as the best defensive team in the league,” Castaldo said. “They’re going to do some different things against you. The key for us is we got it done. It was a close game, back and forth, but we never lost the mindset of getting the ‘W.'”
After jumping out to an early 23-9 lead, the Lions survived a number of pushes from the Pioneers, including a 15-2 run in the first half and an 11-4 surge to open the second that gave Patterson a brief lead at 41-39.
The College was ultimately able to cling to their lead, which shriveled to as little as three with 1:14 remaining.
“We didn’t play as well as we’re capable but it’s a win,” Castaldo said.
Grant netted 26 points on impressive 5-for-5 shooting from three-point range to lead the Lions.
“Any good team defensively has some type of weakness,” Grant said. “I realized early that if I kept moving it made it a lot harder for their men to guard me. My teammates also did a great job of finding me when I was open, which made it easier to get some good looks.”
The Lions lost their chance at a clean sweep of the NJAC this week when they could not hold on to a 15-point lead and lost in overtime 105-97 to Richard Stockton College on Wednesday evening.
The College opened the game firing but could not keep things together in the second half until finally being outscored 17-9 in the overtime period behind seven extra period points from sophomore guard Kris Polk. Polk, who finished with 23, also scored eight of the Ospreys’ last 10 points in the final two-and-a-half minutes of regulation, including the game-tying basket with eight seconds remaining.
“He was pretty tough,” Castaldo said. “They just picked him up. He’s a very good player out of Camden. He was tough to defend off the dribble and really hurt us.”
Senior guard Kyle Burke torched Stockton for five first-half threes, including one on each of the Lions’ first three possessions of the game, as part the College’s remarkable 12-for-16 effort from three-point range in the first half.
The Lions led by as many as 15 and entered halftime with a 48-36 lead but could not contain the Ospreys defensively in the second half, allowing them to finish the final 2:30 on a 13-2 run to end regulation tied at 88.
“We gave up 105 points so we lost the game on the defensive end,” Castaldo said. “If you’re scoring 88 points, you should win the game. I thought it was more of a problem defensively. We couldn’t stop their athleticism.”
Senior forward Brain Hiltner led Stockton with 29 as part of the Osprey’s 56-point effort from the paint. Grant netted 27 points to lead the Lions.
“The loss to Stockton has us real hungry right now,” Grant said. “I think everyone was kind of in shock initially but (Thursday) at practice, we all couldn’t wait to get out on the court.”
The Lions now stand at 14-6 overall and 7-4 in the NJAC. They will host Rutgers University-Camden at 8 p.m. on Wednesday night.