by ANDREW GARDA
Led by 20 points from sophomore Charles Murphy, the Montclair High School boys basketball team held off a feisty Fair Lawn squad, 74-63, in front of a raucous crowd in the opening round of the NJSIAA North 1, Group IV state tournament Monday in Fair Lawn. The win advances the ninth-seeded Mounties (17-10) to the sectional quarterfinals Wednesday night, when they will travel to top-seeded Bloomfield.
The game was a seesaw affair, with numerous lead changes as the Mounties struggled to stay ahead of the eighth-seeded Cutters, struggling to finish their drives to the hoop in the first half and then missing too many free throws in the second. Montclair was finally able to correct its fortune during the last two minutes of regulation, going 9-for-10 from the the foul line to close out the game.
The Mounties were lucky that despite missing four free throws early in the fourth quarter they were able to stay ahead of Fair Lawn, because the Cutters also struggled to hit their shots from the charity stripe. When the Mounties finally heated up — mostly through the sharp free-throw shooting of senior Shawn Smith, who finished with 16 points — they were finally able to put Fair Lawn away.
Still, Montclair clearly struggled with a feisty Fair Lawn team, which took advantage of the Mounties’ early shakiness to enter halftime with a 29-26 lead. Fair Lawn often seemed one step ahead of the Mounties in the first half, as they were quick to claim loose balls and went hard after rebounds. Their aggression seemed to take Montclair by surprise, and before they knew it, the Mounties were in a dogfight.
The Mounties kept calm and continued fighting, keeping the game close until Murphy got hot from the perimeter. In the opening moments of the fourth quarter, Murphy scored 8 points, including a pair of 3-point shots.
“He likes those pressure situations,” head coach Gary Wallace said of Murphy. “He told me before the game, he said ‘Coach, my legs feel great, I feel ready to go.’ I told him that’s playoff energy. I know what that felt like as a player, and I told him … you have to harness it because you can come up here and get too jacked up.”
Murphy’s quick three baskets put Montclair ahead, and it never relinquished the lead again.
Fair Lawn stayed close enough to be dangerous, but the Cutters were clearly worn down by the quick pace and physical nature of the game. As Murphy, Smith (16 points) and senior Ivan McDaniel (19 points) poured on the baskets, the sharp passing, confident ball movement and aggressive demeanor of the Cutters slowly ebbed.
Wallace said the tenacity of their opponent Monday night was a good reminder that the Mounties cannot take anyone lightly.
“I tell these guys, it’s playoff basketball. You can’t underestimate any team. Whether they’re 5-7 or 6-9, you have to have the mindset, to be focused and locked in on every play and every possession. Because every possession counts and as we advance, these games are going to be close. Games are going to come down to a missed free throw, one box out or a loose ball. We have to be locked in at all times.”