MENDHAM, NJ - If you showed up late to Mendham High School on Monday night - check that, if you showed up even five minutes before the opening tip-off of the NJSIAA North II, Group III Sectional Championship game between the No. 1-seeded Minutemen and the visiting No. 2-seeded Millers of Millburn - you most certainly did not get a seat. The official attendance listed for the game was 888, yet most estimates by those in attendance put the actual number of people crammed into the gym at well over 1,000 as every open square of hardwood surrounding the actual court was filled sometimes three deep by the standing room only crowd that witnessed a truly remarkable championship game between two talented and well-coached teams.
For a wild and crazy, back-and-forth battle that spanned the first thirty-one minutes and fifty-five seconds of game time, Millburn and Mendham fought each other tooth-and-nail for the prize of a Sectional championship. Leading by a score of 64-62, Mendham inbounded the ball with just 5.4 seconds remaining in the face of the Millers' full-court pressure when Millburn guard Max Miller dove for the pass and looked to steal the ball as he tumbled to the ground in front of Mendham guard Cody DeMoss.
With Miller on the ground in possession of the basketball and the Millburn bench calling for a timeout, the whistle blew, but a controversial foul call on Miller sent the guard into an angry rage and he was whistled not only for the initial foul, but for a technical foul as well, that put DeMoss on the line for four free throws and returned possession to the Minutemen.
After DeMoss hit two of his four free throws, Mendham was able to run out the clock to secure a nail-biting 66-62 victory as Millburn head coach Rodger Blind and his team stood stunned while Mendham students rushed the court to celebrate their team's thrilling win. Just like that, the most successful season in Millburn boys basketball history came to a heartbreaking conclusion.
Senior Alex Rosenberg, who finished with 24 points on the night, sat alone at the end of the bench following the postgame handshake, his head in his hands. Miller had to be consoled by several of his teammates, a look of utter despair upon his face. Senior point guard Joe Kizel - the Millers' best player throughout the Tournament - wandered around the court watching the Mendham celebration before he finally took off his jersey and walked slowly back to the Millburn locker room.
"We fought hard. We didn't play very well in the first half and we got off to a slow start, but we fought until the very end and it was a tough call there," Kizel said after the game. "I thought we got a steal and obviously in the heat of the moment, Max reacted, but I don't know how you can call a technical foul."
Mendham jumped out to an early lead due to hot shooting and a balanced offensive attack. DeMoss hit two threes for the Minutemen, but Kizel kept the Millers in the game early as he poured in eight of his game-high 26 points in the opening period. At the end of the first eight minutes of play, Mendham led, 19-14.
Mendham stretched the lead to 12 points at halftime as the Minutemen continued to fire away from long distance. It seemed the each time the Millers would put together a spurt of offense, Mendham answered with two buckets of their own. Mendham's Alex Vicarisi and his twin brother Tore combined for 25 points on the night and helped put the Minutemen up 37-25 at the break.
"I thought we lost the game in the first half. I thought our defense wasn't good, but it seemed like they made every shot. I was so proud of our kids in the second half. I think we were down 12 or 14 and they could have given up, but they just kept chipping away, chipping away," Millburn head coach Rodger Blind said. "I think they had 37 points at the half, but I was so proud of the way our kids fought back. It was a very emotional game. Some tough calls [went against us] coming down the stretch. I didn't even think we really lost the game, we just ran out of time. I really think if we would have had another two or three minutes, we could have beaten them."
The Millers played inspired basketball during the third quarter and trimmed the lead to seven points on the strength of Kizel and Rosenberg and their collective ability to put the team on their back and score seemingly at will. Though the two seniors - both 1,000 point scorers in their excellent careers - seemed intent on pushing the Millers to a dramatic come-from-behind win, Kizel and Rosenberg didn't get much help from their teammates on the offensive end as no other Millburn player topped five points for the game. The Millers outscored the Minutemen 20-15 in the third quarter and stiffened up defensively in the second half.
The Millers continued to pull closer and after Kizel knocked down a long three pointer to cut the Mendham lead to 44-43 with just under three minutes to play in the third, it was clear that Millburn wasn't about to go quietly in such a big game. Blind said after the game that he didn't make any defensive adjustments at halftime but that he and his coaching staff simply asked their players to work harder. "We just asked them to work a little bit harder [defensively in the second half]," Blind said. "We just tried to get out a little tougher and I think we did. I also told the team at halftime, I didn't think [Mendham] would shoot as well from the outside in the second half as they did in the first half."
In the fourth quarter, the Minutemen seemed to have weathered the Millburn barrage and began once again to pull away thanks to some clutch shooting by DeMoss and reserve guard Andrew Jacobs who entered the game in the first half and provided Mendham with an instant spark. Jacobs finished with 12 points on the night, but like the rest of his teammates, struggled to knock down his free throws when Millburn began to foul to stop the clock. On three straight possessions, Mendham couldn't knock down both free throws and the Millers took the ball the length of the court and scored. This surge was highlighted by Kizel's dazzling three-point play and two Alex Rosenberg lay-ups that pulled the Millers within two at 64-62.
However, Miller's technical foul undid Millburn's faint hopes of walking out of Mendham with a Sectional title. "I told [Max] afterward that he's got to learn from this," Blind said. "At that point, whether the call is good, bad or indifferent, it's made. That's one of the things [you learn] when you play sports - there are going to be calls that go against you and you have to learn how to handle those [emotions]."
After the game, Blind reflected upon the tough loss and also on what was an historic season for his team and the 10 seniors who gave all they had in leading their school to a 23-4 record and to within five points of a championship. "In terms of success - and success in sports is generally measured in terms of wins and losses - this is the most successful team in terms of wins and losses ever in the history of Millburn High School. To win 23 games, I told the 10 seniors that they set a standard and an example for all teams that follow to try and emulate. It's a great credit to the kids," Blind said.