It certainly hasn’t been the best season for the Lions, but the men’s basketball team has done something that few teams in their situation would — they kept fighting.
This was evident in the team’s 65-53 loss to New Jersey City University, in which the College seemed completely outmatched in the first half, but went into attack mode after the intermission and actually outscored the Gothic Knights in the second half, 35-32. They also dropped their final game of the season on the road to Montclair State University by a score of 99-83.
“We can match any team with energy on the defensive end, but we have to start that off in the beginning,” sophomore guard Emmanuel Matlock said. “We just have to have composure and just run our stuff like we know we can.”
The game against NJCU couldn’t have started out any worse for the Lions (5-20, 3-15), who fell victim to an early 8-0 run. It took nearly five minutes before a Matlock layup gave the College their first points of the game. Matlock finished with 10 points, three rebounds and three assists.
The Lions then went on a solid 11-4 run, which was capped off by a dazzling crosscourt pass from Matlock to junior forward Joe Kane to cut the deficit to 16-13. However, the Gothic Knights countered with an 18-5 run of their own in which their stifling defense didn’t allow any open looks and held the College to just two field goals in the rest of the half to take a 33-18 lead. The lead could have been even bigger if not for a few unlucky bounces for NJCU robbing them of points.
“I feel like that was our problem for the most part of the season,” Matlock said, discussing the sluggish first half. “But we battled back and came back with energy. We have to have more energy to start off.”
When the second half started, the Lions turned up their defensive pressure. During the first half, the defense had no life and the College had to rely on fouling to prevent the Gothic Knights from scoring. The second half showed a whole new swagger for the team.
“Coach just said, ‘Go out there and play tough, you have nothing to lose,’” Matlock said.
A baseline floater by sophomore guard Ryan Keegan got the team going on what became a 14-6 run to make the score 43-32. Freshman forward Miller and junior forward Alex Fox chipped in with layups, while sophomore guard Jayson Johnson got going late in the run with a baseline jumper of his own and two free throws.
“(In the) first half we took too many threes and too many jumpers,” Matlock said. “We’re an attacking team. When we’re attacking and getting to the free-throw line, we’re a much better team.”
However, the rest of the game went back and forth between the two teams, as the Lions couldn’t get any closer than an 11-point differential.
There were some encouraging moments, however. Matlock collected a steal and took it all the way for a layup. Miller fought tooth and nail for an offensive rebound and put the ball back in the basket for an AND1 with defenders draped all over him. Finally, a quick swing pass from junior forward Skylear Ettin to junior guard Matt Rista resulted in a corner three, the College’s first of the game. Rista had a solid effort with eight points and nine rebounds.
There was a feel-good moment at the end of the game that saw lone senior William Lester knock down a contested three-pointer in what was his final home game as a Lion.
“Billy’s been the heart and soul of the team this year,” Miller said. “He may not have been the guy who got significant minutes, but he’s our hardest worker and he’s going to be missed next year.”
It turns out that Lester had one last hurrah against Montclair State, scoring 14 points and drilling four three-pointers. His last trey came at the buzzer, ending his career as a Lion in the most fitting of ways.
Despite the loss, four additional Lions scored in double figures. Ettin led the team with 22, all of them coming in the second half, Johnson had 21, and Fox and Keegan had 10 apiece.
Runs of 11-2 and 11-0 put the team in a hole early, but two threes by Keegan and four points by Johnson made the score at the break 46-34.
Although the College was able to drain a season-high 11 three-pointers, it didn’t make a difference. They were held in check for the second half and were outrebounded in the game by a 42-36 margin.
While the loss may have marked the end of a disappointing season, the Lions now have the offseason to look forward to. There is definitely room for improvement, but now they have a chance to get better. That journey begins now.
“We’ll work really hard in the offseason and come back and win the NJAC,” Miller said.