Lions leap into first, reel off seventh in a row

A month ago, the Lions sat at 4-5 in the New Jersey Athletic Conference, with fans yearning for something to cheer about and the coaching staff frustrated with the inconsistent offensive play.

Four-and-a-half weeks later, the Lions are sitting pretty at 11-5 atop the conference and 17-6 overall. In the midst of a seven-game winning streak, they have developed into a true team and it’s showing up as wins in the box score.

“These guys believe in each other,” head coach John Castaldo said. “They feed off each other. There are no egos. It’s amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.”

The Lions’ latest victims were the Scarlet Raiders of Rutgers University-Newark, whom the Lions disposed of with a 62-50 home victory on Saturday afternoon. The Lions were blown out by the Raiders earlier in the season 71-48, making the win that much more impressive.

With a smothering defense and unselfish offensive play, the Lions pounced on the Raiders in the first half and held them down for the rest of the game. After sophomore guard Corey Gilmore drew his second charge in the first half, the Lions moved the ball around until senior forward Bobby Davison cashed in on an open three-pointer, pushing the lead to 24-9.

Gilmore has been one of several defensive catalysts for the Lions and earned a starting spot midway through the season, largely thanks to his defensive presence. “I figure if I can stop the other team’s guards, then I’ll be able to stop what the other team is trying to do,” Gilmore said. “If you stop the guards, then you stop their offense.”

The Raiders, who were without the services of their leading scorer, junior forward Jermont Horton, had little going offensively, as they were hampered by the Lions defense, which forced 19 turnovers. The frustration was apparent on the sideline as Raiders head coach, Joe Loughran, muttered to his assistant coaches. “They’ve got no leadership out there,” he said in the first half, in which he saw his team turn the ball over 12 times, four of which Lions’ offensive charges caused.

The Raiders made a run to start the second half, cutting the 17-point half time deficit to nine, as freshman guard Chad Barnes completed a three-point play. But senior guard Jason Stallworth brought the momentum back to the Lions by drawing a foul and hitting both free throws.

Then senior forward Scott Findlay scored the Lions’ next seven points, capped off by a three-pointer from the corner that put the game well in hand at 45-29. Findlay, who had a dunk taken back on a traveling violation, made up for it late in the game when he broke up a pass and went coast-to-coast, finishing with an emphatic dunk. He led all scorers with 21 points and 11 rebounds.

Findlay took care of the paint on the defensive end, registering two blocks, but he’s just part of a team defense that ranks second in the country as of Feb. 5, yielding a stingy 55.8 points per game (ppg). “We play good help defense,” Findlay said. “We have some really quick guards that can stop penetration.”

Last Wednesday, the Lions picked up their sixth straight win by toppling the Profs of Rowan University 72-54 on the road. Lacking a significant low-post presence, the Profs were powerless in containing Findlay, who posted a career-high 37 points and grabbed 19 rebounds.

“It was really just one of those games where my shot was falling,” Findlay said. “I was getting the ball in really good position and was able to capitalize off of that.”

The Lions blew this one open early on by going on a 14-0 run nine minutes into the first half, putting the score at 29-11. It was smooth sailing after that, as the Lions controlled the pace for the rest of the game.

Senior forward Matt Diamond, the Lions’ second leading scorer, added 17 points and five rebounds. While Findlay and Diamond carried the offense, the overall team defense limited the Profs to just 54, well below their 75-point average.

Profs sophomore guard/forward Matt Byrnes, who is second in the conference in scoring with 26 ppg, was limited to just 15. Lions senior forward Dan DeSerio had the task of guarding the talented swingman for most of the night.

“I thought Dan did a remarkable job on Matt Byrnes,” Castaldo said. “(Byrnes) played 40 minutes and didn’t get his 15 points at crucial times.”

On Nov. 22, the Lions squeaked by the Profs at home 50-49, but the way the team played on Wednesday proved once again how far it has come over the past three months. “We’re a better team right now than the last time we played them,” Castaldo said.

Castaldo attributed his team’s development to several factors, including the belief and trust of the players in one another, players’ understanding of their different roles and a team atmosphere unburdened by individual egos.