Lions close out ranked Pioneers

At the beginning of the season, newly hired head coach Kelly Williams promised he would re-energize and retool the men’s basketball team. On Saturday afternoon, in front of a thrilled home crowd in Packer Hall, Williams and his Lions certainly took a huge step in that direction, knocking off a nationally- ranked opponent and a New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) foe, when they bested the No. 23 William Paterson University Pioneers 70-65.

“I think our guys are really just starting to believe in our approach to every game, and our philosophy, the ways that we practice and how we perform our games,” Williams said. “That’s making my job easier and we’re having some success.”

The Lions controlled the tempo in the first half, leading by as many as nine despite WPU shooting an impressive 51.7 percent from the field. Junior guard Jay Frank poured in 13 during the first half, going shot for shot with the Pioneers’ offensive catalyst, senior guard Courtney Nelson. A late run by the Lions’ adversaries left the game tied at 36 heading to the intermission.

The Pioneers would fall off the pace again in the second half, trailing 62-56 with just under five minutes to go. Frank, along with senior guard Jeff Molinelli and sophomore forward Steven Siracusa, helped the Lions dominate on the boards, extending possessions that would eventually wear down the Pioneer defense. The Lions managed to snare 42 caroms, while the Pioneers only tracked down 30 rebounds.

In what would again come down to a free-throw shooting contest, Frank and his counterpart, junior guard Eric Blackmon-Hayes, sank five of their six attempts down the stretch to stifle a late Pioneer comeback and seal the Lions’ biggest win under Williams, who praised his team for staying strong at the end of such a difficult contest.

“That was definitely one of our biggest hurdles early on. There were at least three or four games that we didn’t close out prior to the break,” Williams said. “We’ve been able to learn from those mistakes. Those guys are learning how to finish and play the entire 40 minutes and make every opportunity count at the end of the game.”

The win puts the Lions at 4-3 in the NJAC and 8-8 on the year, while the Pioneers fall to 5-2 in conference play and 14-3 overall.

Earlier in the week, Molinelli led the Lions to a hard-fought win, contributing 15 points and eight rebounds in a 67-62 win over the University of Rutgers-Camden Scarlet Raptors. The Lions’ normally high-flying offense was stymied, leading to a tie at 27 at halftime with the NJAC’s lowest-ranked team.

But on an evening when Frank struggled, senior tri-captain Molinelli stepped into the spotlight, hitting key shots and earning several second-chance points. A pair of 13-point performances from Blackmon-Hayes and junior guard William Jett helped the Lions steadily build a second-half lead and never look back. The defeat was the fourth in a row for the struggling Scarlet Raptors.

“Jeff’s importance to the team will never show up statistically. His importance to us is not so much scoring, but it was great to see him score some points against Rutgers-Camden, especially (since) some of our other leading scorers were struggling a little bit,” Williams said. “He made some big shots for us and played really well.”

The Lion’s NJAC mark of 4-3 leaves them sitting in second place in the NJAC South Division. If the season were to end today, they would qualify for the conference tournament. Williams and the rest of his charges are excited to control their own destiny with six games to go in the conference.

“We’re putting ourselves in a very good position to make the playoffs, because we don’t have to depend on anyone to help us get in,” Williams said. “If we just hold serve and win our games, especially the games at home, we’re definitely going to be in a position to make the playoffs.”

Packer Hall has treated the Lions well, as they hold a 5-1 home record this season, but the squad will be on the road for their next all important conference match- up, visiting Kean University at 8 p.m. tonight. The team hosts NJAC rival Ramapo College Saturday at 3 p.m.

With the superior play of guards Molinelli and Frank along with the leadership of Williams, the Lions are prepared to begin their difficult climb to the top of their conference as they continue their NJAC schedule.

James Queally can be reached at queally2@tcnj.edu.