What was supposed to be a rebuilding year may have turned into a playoff year, but the men’s basketball team is surely still bitter that their first home postseason contest in years ended in a double-digit loss to the Scarlet Raiders of Rutgers-Newark.
Seeded No.2 in the New Jersey Athletic Conference South Division, the Lions sought revenge for a road loss against the Scarlet Raiders 79-74 earlier this season. But junior guard Jay Frank went cold while the Scarlet Raiders own junior spark plug, James Johnson, led all scorers with 17 points and three shots from beyond the arc, paving the way for a 77-66 NJAC tournament win for Rutgers-Newark
“It was a tough loss. I think a lot of the pain we had after the game was that we were just not going to be around each other for a while,” Williams said. “Seeing some of the seniors go, that was probably the toughest part. I enjoyed coaching these players and they really enjoyed being with each other. It’s just disappointing that we can’t be around each another week or two.”
The game was a back and forth affair until the final four minutes, where the Scarlet Raiders took a 64-61 lead and went on a 10-3 run to earn themselves a second round battle with top-ranked Montclair State University last night. Rutgers-Newark junior Phil Barnes emphatically ended the Lions season with a thunderous dunk to put the visitors up 10.
Senior forward David Cherry and junior Tim Smith added 16 and 15 points respectively to help pace the Scarlet Raiders, who shot 52% on the afternoon.
“At that point you hope that statistically things would slow down for them in regards to making shots from the outside, but they were able to maintain it for the entire game,” Williams said. “When that’s happening you have to hope some of those shots will just start to miss, but they were able to get some confidence and just shot the ball better throughout the entire game.”
While the Scarlet Raiders offensive firecrackers got hot at the right time, the Lions scoring leader Frank simply could not find his shot, going 2 of 9 from the field before ultimately fouling out. Sophomore stud Aaron Syversten led the Lions with 17 while classmate and forward Stephen Siracusa chipped in 15 off the bench.
Saturday was the final performance for senior co-captain Jeff Molinelli. While the floor leader’s importance to the team rarely materialized in the box scores, the defensive minded forward will be sorely missed by his coaches and teammates.
“He’s the biggest person we’re going to miss. He kept the team together going through three coaches in four years,” Williams said. “He was one of the first players on board with my system, he was one player I could always say would put the team first.”
Senior shooting guard Eric Blackmon-Hayes and forward Adam Gonzalez will also hang up their blue and gold as a result of the defeat.
Before the crippling defeat, the Lions earned their home playoff date by handily beating Kean University at home on Feb. 18, 71-54.
Four Lions, led by Frank’s 16 point performance, would reach double figures as the Cougars never really challenged a determined Lions squad. After clinching a playoff berth by trouncing Rowan four days earlier, the Lions turned their attention to securing a home playoff spot, and their focus resulted in a lopsided takedown of the struggling Cougars. Kean trailed by as many as 21 in the second half.
The Lions finish the season at 6-8 in the conference and 10-15 overall. While Williams is impressed with the team’s resolve and improvement, he and his underclass leaders Frank and Siracusa are already set on claiming the NJAC crown next year.
“I’m excited for next year. We have quite a few guys that are very familiar with my system. I’m very excited about the fact that the guys are going into the off season knowing what to expect to be successful,” he said. “If we can add some more pieces from a recruiting point of view, we will be in a position to get a playoff spot and try to win a conference championship.”
And with his team pulling off two wins over the conference’s best after pre-season polls slotted them dead last in the conference, Williams knows these Lions are headed for big things in 2009-2010.
“Without question, I’m still a little bitter, my wounds are still there from Saturday’s loss. But I’ll be able to reflect on this season and appreciate what we did,” Williams said. “To earn a playoff spot and get some wins against nationally-ranked teams, it makes me feel good that the players and the programs are moving in the right direction right now.”