BASKING RIDGE, NJ -- Mike Zima played one of the best quarters of his career in carrying Ridge in the opening period against Pingry.
But when the senior center went to the bench with his third foul in the third quarter, Ridge, as a team, actually played its best seven minutes of the season.
Senior guard Mike DeMarco scored 15 of his 20 points in the second half and Zima finished with 16 points, seven rebounds and three blocks to lead ninth-seeded Ridge to a 49-44 victory over eighth-seeded Pingry in enemy territory on the south side of town Saturday in the Somerset County Tournament round-of-16.
Ridge (9-12) will move on to face the top seed--and one of the best teams in New Jersey--Gill-St. Bernard's Tuesday at 7 p.m.
Zima, who went off for 12 points in the opening quarter, went off to the bench with 6:07 left in the third quarter when he was whistled for his third personal foul. A minute later, Pingry (15-4)established its biggest lead of the game, 34-26. That didn't seem like a scenario that would pave the way for a rousing Ridge rally, but that's exactly what transpired.
"We got down by eight, but people stepped up and brought us back," Zima said. "Nate Herrera drove to the rim a few times, Mike (DeMarco) had a lot of good drives and we came back."
The Red Devils scored the final 14 points of the third quarter, then opened the fourth quarter with two free throws by Zima to open a 42-34 lead and extend to a 16-0 run before Pingry scored with six minutes left to break a drought of 7:14 without a single point against Ridge's flexing 2/3 zone defense.
"We were up, 23-17, before they scored the final six points of the first half, and then we were down eight in the third quarter," said Ridge head coach Brian Feath. "When we were down, the guys responded. We haven't always done that this season, but I love the way we responded today."
Freshman center Jayden Hylton, who came in for Zima, put back his own miss to start Ridge's 16-0 run. DeMarco followed with a 3-pointer, then scored off a steal with 3:39 left in the third quarter. Herrera scored on a drive, then sank a pair of free throws with 2:44 left to give Ridge a 37-34 lead. Then, with 1:03 left in the third quarter, DeMarco took a pass from Herrera and sank another 'three' for the final points of the quarter. And while his usually reliable shot wasn't falling, freshman guard Gavin Kreitz led the team with four assists.
DeMarco's two 3-pointers during the late third-quarter spurt were critical, but his repeated ability to penetrate into the teeth of Pingry's defense in the fourth quarter enabled the Red Devils to hold on to the lead they'd established. Time after time, DeMarco's fearless forays to the rim resulted in either a basket or a Pingry foul.
"They showed a lot of fake help defense against us," DeMarco said of Pingry. "When I started to drive, they would just stand there. They weren't closing out, so I took over with dribble drives."
While the Red Devils were exploiting something they had found in Pingry's defense, an adjustment by the Ridge defense helped stem Pingry's offensive flow after the Big Blue had scored at a rapid pace early in the game.
"We started off in a man (to man) against them," DeMarco said. "Once we went to a zone (late in the first half), we saw that they were a little confused with what we were doing. Sometimes we would trap up top, sometimes we would trap in the corners."
When Zima came back in the game in the fourth quarter, Feath played his two 6-foot-5 centers together, with each one anchoring one corner in Ridge's 2/3 zone to take away Pingry's preference for shooting threes from the baseline. Ridge would have 6-foot-2 swingman John Pikiell in the back middle in that zone alignment.
And while ZIma's contributions as a rebounder and defender were important down the stretch, his first quarter was a mix tape in the making. He scored Ridge's first 10 points on four layups and a pair of free throws, then assisted Hylton on the only non-Zima points of a first quarter that ended with Pingry ahead by one, 13-12.
"Zima was a horse in the first half for us," Feath said.
"It definitely had to be (my best quarter of the season)," Zima said. "A lot of people were able to find me and get me the ball inside. I had a lot of clean looks, and I was able to finish."
While Zima conceded the first quarter was his best all season, DeMarco said the victory was Ridge's most gratifying this year.
"It definitely was our best win. It was basically a playoff game," DeMarco said. "This is really like a rivalry, since (Pingry) is on the other side of town. It was a big game, there was a great crowd. And we all want to play Gill."
That comes Tuesday, and it will be the tallest task of the season for a Ridge team that, after four victories in a row, might be playing its best basketball of the season right now.
Ridge (9-12) 12 11 17 9 -- 49
Pingry (15-4) 13 10 11 10 -- 44