Lion ballers hit tough stretch, fall twice

A pair of tough road losses extended the Lions’ worst losing streak of the season to five, wounding the men’s basketball team’s playoff chances as they approach their final New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) contests.

The Lions traveled to Phoenixville, Pa., on Feb. 4 where they wound up on the wrong end of a close battle with the Valley Forge Christian College Patriots, falling 78-76. Three days later, the Lions lost a pivotal conference contest when No.10 Richard Stockton College trounced the visiting Lions 77-61.

After last week’s three-game slip, head coach Kelly Williams said his team understood that squads sometimes go through rough patches. The coach and his charges still believe they are in a position to make a run, despite the pair of losses against the Patriots and Ospreys.

“Right now, surprisingly, we’re still very optimistic. The players understand that if we can finish up strong these next three games, we have a great opportunity to have a home playoff game,” Williams said. “Our goal from day one was to make the playoffs.”

The Patriots (20-5) got hot from beyond the arc, shooting 58.3 percent from dowtown to build a 39-31 lead at the break. The host squad would pour in 10 three-pointers on the night, led by senior guard Nate Stoner who hit three from deep to score a game-high 17 points. Stoner’s counterpart, senior guard Justyn Mitchell, added 16 points, and both guards snared seven rebounds to lead the Patriots.

The Lions wasted another solid performance by sophomore forward Stephen Siracusa. The young star tallied 12 points and seven rebounds on the afternoon, also netting two second-half three-pointers that helped keep the Lions in the fight. Junior forward Aaron Syverstern and junior guard Jay Frank added 13 points each.

On Saturday, Syverstern exploded for 22 points and senior captain Jeff Molinelli added 14, but the rest of their teammates seemed lost on offense as the Ospreys (10-1) blew past the visiting Lions, 77-61.

In their final regular season home game, the Ospreys put on a show for their home faithful with senior guard Jerome Hubbard leading the parade. Hubbard poured in 23 points, going five-for-10 from beyond the arc. Hubbard’s hot hand helped him earn a place in Richard Stockton athletic history as he scored his 1,000th point Saturday afternoon.

“We weren’t able to maintain our level of energy against Stockton. They were ready for it and we weren’t able to handle their run midway through the first, so we were just playing catch up after that,” Williams said.

When Hubbard hit a three to reach the milestone with five minutes left in the game, the Lions found themselves behind 71-49 and could do nothing but hang their heads as the Osprey fans met Hubbard with a standing ovation.

Syverstern matched Hubbard as best he could, totaling 22 points on five-of-11 shooting from deep, but three other Ospreys wound up scoring double-figures, burying the Lions’ chances. Junior forward Omar Smith had 18, while sophomore guard Michael Farrow, junior forward Santini Lancioni and sophomore guard Kai Massaquoi drained 10 points each.

Syverstern started hot, hitting a pair of threes to put the Lions up 10-4, but a huge first-half run, sparked by Hubbard, vaulted the Ospreys to an eight-point half-time lead, and they never looked back.

With only one week of conference play to go, the Lions (8-13 overall, 4-6 NJAC) are clinging to the final playoff spot in the South Division. In their final two contests of the season, they play host to the Rowan University Profs (4-6 NJAC) and Kean University Cougars (4-7 NJAC). Richard Stockton has already clinched the division, while the Lions, Cougars and Profs must now fight for the two remaining playoff spots.

The Lions start their final push for a playoff berth tonight at 8 p.m. when they travel to face the struggling Rutgers-Camden Scarlet Raptors (0-9 NJAC). While Williams refused to call the match up with the woeful Raptors a “trap game,” his team won’t take the game for granted either.

“Although their record shows they have struggled, they are still a very dangerous team,” Williams said. “They’re at home and we only beat them by five points at our place. It’s going to be a competitive game. They’re playing very well. They lost to Stockton by two points two weeks ago.”

The second-place Profs will look to spoil the Lions playoff hopes in Packer Hall at 3 p.m. on Saturday.

Next Wednesday, at 8 p.m., the Lions face Kean in a game that could be the difference between a playoff berth and another off-season full of questions.

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