By Ryan Fennell
Middletown – Middletown North’s run at the Shore Conference title was stopped in its tracks on Wednesday night when the Cougars of Colts Neck handed down a definitive 53-42 defeat of the Lions in the tournament semifinal before a standing-room-only crowd at Brookdale Community College.
Colts Neck will face Neptune in the Shore Conference final Friday night at Monmouth University. It will be the third time this season the two teams have played, having split the previous two games.
The semifinal got off to an odd start.
With dueling student sections attempting to one-up the other during the starting lineup introductions, the Colts Neck student fans threw powder in the air as a group, a la LeBron James, creating a cloud of powder that ultimately settled on the basketball court. The game needed to be stopped less than two minutes in so the Brookdale athletic staff could attempt to clean the powder from the court.
When play resumed, after a lengthy delay, it took several possessions for either team to find any sort of rhythm and it was Colts Neck that was the first to do so late in the first, jumping out to a 10-4 lead to end the quarter.
Colts Neck carried the momentum into the second and extended its lead to 16-5 and then 21-9 behind perimeter shooting from Jon Baturgil and inside points from Hunter Wysocki. Wysocki had a game high 16 points and pulled down 12 boards.
The Lions started to find their touch after Cody Thompson dropped a three to cut Colts Neck’s lead back to nine and John Dini was able to sink both ends of a one-and-one. Mike Barber sunk a jay late to cut the lead to 5 at 21-16 before halftime.
“The delay, I thought, definitely hurt us,” said Middletown North head coach Mike Iasparro. “I’m not going to blame the game on that, but we were pretty fired up, ready to go, ready to play – it definitely hurt us. It’s definitely something we would have rather not have happened, let’s put it that way.”
The second half provided no relief for the Lions as Colts Neck came out firing with consecutive three’s from Brandon Federici and a low post spin for a layup from Wysocki to go up 29-17.
North made a strong run at Colts Neck behind a pair of three’s from Thompson and Eric Youncofski, who also made a strong drive inside for a layup to get it back to five at 30-25 with 2:33 remaining in the third. However, North made a pair of unforced errors late in the quarter, handing the ball over on an inbounds pass underneath its own basket and an offensive foul by Jason Huelbig behind the three-point line, that killed its rally and the Lions were down seven at 32-25 heading into the final eight minutes of play.
The Cougars stretched their lead to 11 at 45-34 off a fast break layup from Sean O’Reilly sparked by a steal near midcourt by Lucas Lalima.
But, North battled back and was able to cut the lead to four at 46-42, going on a 7-1 run in under a minute behind scoring from Youncofski, a big three-pointer from Tim Frawley, and a pair from Huelbig who hit both ends of a one-and-one.
Colts Neck, however, would not roll over and managed to stretch its lead back to seven on a free throw from O’Reilly and a layup from Baturgil with under a minute to play, forcing Middletown to start fouling to stop the clock. Colts Neck went three-for-four from the line with under a minute left to seal the win and move on to the championship.
“We didn’t make free throws when we needed to make free throws,” Iasparro said. “[Colts Neck] made free throws.
“We gave up seven points off offensive rebounds in the first half, which is something we constantly harp on,” he added. “That was a huge reason for why we were down five at halftime.”
Anytime Middletown made a run in the game, Colts Neck responded and managed to maintain its lead throughout.
“It’s a bad loss for these guys,” Iasparro said. “A group of guys that have been driven to win this whole thing from the get-go and were on a mission and ran into a team today that is a pretty good basketball team.
“At the end of the day [Colts Neck] made a lot more open shots than we did,” Iasparro added. “That’s really what it came down to.”
All is not lost for Middletown North this season. The NJSIAA state tournament begins next Tuesday in which the Lions have earned the three-seed. North will host 14-seeded Brick Memorial on Tuesday at 6 pm.