Silence blanketed the crowd like a midnight snowfall. The cheers that echoed in Packer Hall gymnasium moments before had quickly turned into gasps as freshman guard Chadd Barnes rattled in a three-pointer from 25 feet out to bring jubilation to his Rutgers team and disbelief to a suddenly deflated Lions squad.
The shock proved to be too numbing for the Lions as they fell in overtime and lost another game in the first round of the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) Tournament, which they should have won. Last year, it was Rowan University; this year, Rutgers University-Newark played the spoiler, handing the Lions a heartbreaking 46-38 loss on their home court.
Senior guard Jason Stallworth hit two clutch free throws in the waning minute of the game to put the Lions up three. After a traveling call committed by Barnes, the Lions would get the ball back with just 1.6 seconds left. The game was over. Fans were ready to leave. Coaches were thinking about their post-game speeches. But then the unthinkable happened.
With senior forward Scott Findlay seemingly wide open at mid-court, the Lions went with their touchdown play to inbound the ball. But when Findlay got muddled behind a Rutgers defender, the pass sailed over his head and landed out of bounds.
“They were just denying (Scott) so much that it was just a natural instinct to go the other way and throw it over the top,” head coach John Castaldo said of the game-changing play. Even worse for the Lions, no one laid a hand on the ball. That meant no time ticked off the clock and the Scarlet Raiders regained possession at their end of the court, setting up Barnes’ unbelievable shot.
“I can’t let a walk take down my game,” Barnes said of his shot that erased any memory of the traveling call he committed. “As a freshman, I wasn’t ready to go home.”
This loss was particularly hard for Findlay. To have all the hard work he has put into a storied college career end in such a heart-wrenching fashion gives a whole new meaning to the term “devastating loss.”
He summed up the team’s frustration for the game with a simple statement that masked the anguish of the defeat. “We wanted to win a championship and we didn’t,” he said.
The Lions were in control of the game up until the final shot. “The way the game was going, I thought it was going our tempo and the way we wanted to play,” Stallworth said of the highly physical and defensive game.
Despite Findlay playing just six minutes in the first half due to early foul trouble, the Lions fought their way to a 17-16 half-time lead. Findlay vented some of his frustration to start the second half, scoring the Lions’ first four points.
Ironically, the Lions came up with the plays when they needed them throughout the second half, except at the most crucial point of the game. Early on, sophomore guard Corey Gilmore drew a charge and then converted a tough floater in the lane to stretch the Lions’ lead to five.
Later in the half, Stallworth hit a desperate fade-away that just barely beat the shot clock and put the Lions up 34-29 with five minutes left in regulation. In the closing minute of the game, Stallworth was sent to the floor by a Rutgers player but was called for a blocking foul.
Redemption was his though, as he forced a charging violation against senior guard Justin Carter on the ensuing possession. Stallworth would then draw a foul and hit two free throws to give the Lions a 36-33 lead.
On the next possession, the clock whittled down to six seconds, leaving enough time for Rutgers junior forward Jermont Horton to throw up a desperate three that caught nothing but air. Barnes was able to get the rebound but then stumbled into his own man and committed a traveling violation.
The rest of the game will live on in Scarlet Raiders’ history.
Despite the loss, the Lions should be proud, as they seemingly played above their ability all year. “I want to give a tremendous amount of credit to our kids, a team that was picked to finish ninth,” head coach John Castaldo, who was honored with the John K. Adams Coach of the Year award (top NJAC coach) on Monday, said. “These guys put themselves in position, collectively, to win basketball games – games they weren’t even supposed to be in.”
The Lions were picked ninth in the 10-team NJAC in the preseason, but they have developed into a true team throughout the course of the season.
They were in contention to win the conference and the coaching staff was glad to be a part of the season even though it ended the way it did.
“I’ve been here 13 years and coaching 27, and this is one of the most remarkable group of guys I have ever coached,” Castaldo said. “These guys gave us everything they had all the time.”
The Lions finished the season with 17 wins and nine losses and fourth place in the conference. Looking ahead, the Lions will have some fresh faces next year, as four of this year’s five starters will be graduating.