MILLBURN, NJ - When tournament time rolls around, every aspect of the game is magnified and dissected. Each possession, each shot, each coaching decision - everything is put under the microscope. As each Group's field shrinks from 16 teams to the final two, the storylines that play out on the court during the season's most important games become part of New Jersey state basketball history, their characters and the teams they represent forever etched in the record books. For separate yet equally compelling reasons, the Millburn Millers and Carteret Ramblers have each left an indelible imprint on this year's North II, Group II tournament. On Friday night at Millburn High School, the favored No. 2-seeded Millers and the No. 14-seeded Ramblers - the tournament's "Cinderella" - squared off in a semifinal match-up that provided fast-paced action from the get-go and resulted in a 60-47 victory for Millburn.
Millburn jumped out to an early 8-0 lead thanks in large part to the offensive presence provided by forward Alex Rosenberg. The 6-5 senior attacked the bucket repeatedly in the early going, going 4-for-4 from the free throw line and also dropping in two lay-ups, one on a fast break and one the result of a nice post move. Rosenberg exploited an obvious size advantage over Carteret's smaller line-up.
"Coach [Blind] told me, 'No one is going to be able to stop you from going to the basket,' so I decided to just take it to them," Rosenberg said after the game. "Whether they were smaller than me, bigger than me, I just drove to the basket to see if I could draw some fouls and I got some guys in foul trouble."
Though the Millers looked as if they were set to dominate the game after taking the early lead, Carteret got hot and outscored Millburn 11-4 during the final three and a half minutes of the quarter. Shooting guard Devon Byrd converted a smooth three-point play to calm the Ramblers' nerves and get them on the board. The first quarter ended when small forward Shaquille Jackson buried a three pointer with only four seconds left in the period to cut the Millers' lead to a single point, 12-11.
In the second quarter, a key theme emerged that would later become the single biggest discrepancy between the two teams during the game. Millburn's aggressive offensive attack in the first half resulted in the Ramblers being called for several fouls in the paint and the Millers - a fundamentally sound team to begin with - hit 7-of-11 free throws in the second period while the Ramblers struggled mightily all night from the charity stripe.
Rosenberg - who finished with a game-high 23 points - was again big in the second quarter both from the field and from the line as he poured in seven points in the period as the Millers took a 26-17 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Both Rosenberg and fellow senior point guard Joe Kizel, have been absolutely dominant for the Millers throughout this year's tournament run and Friday night's game against Carteret was no different as the two combined for 25 of the Millers' 26 first half points. "I think we talked about it after the [West Morris quarterfinal game] last time, in the big games, your primary guys have to play their best. That's so important for us," Blind said.
The Millers put the game away for good in the third quarter and effectively ended what had been a magical run for the Ramblers through this season's tournament, a run that included two huge upsets over No. 3-seeded Somerville in the first round and a thrilling overtime win against No. 6-seeded rival New Brunswick in the quarterfinals. Kizel ran the offense brilliantly as he made several no-look passes that led to open lay-ups against the Carteret press.
"[Kizel] just has eyes in the back of his head. It's funny when you're coaching him, you have to tell the other guys on the team that even though he's not looking at you, he sees you," Blind said of his point guard after the game. "Normally what happens, people think, 'Well, he's not looking at me so he doesn't see me," but yes, he does see [them]. His court vision is exceptional. Believe me, as a coach, you don't teach something like that. I think it's something that he had when he came to us and it's something that I think is his biggest strength."
The Millers doubled up the Ramblers in the third quarter in terms of scoring, 16-8, and led by 17 as the fourth quarter got underway but even with such a big lead entering the final frame, Carteret still had an opportunity to at least get back into the game when they were done in by their inability to hit free throws. The Ramblers missed six of eight from the charity stripe early in the fourth quarter after a run during which they cut the Millburn lead to a dozen. Carteret shot miserably from the line all game, just 45 percent (13-for-29), and the free points the Ramblers left on the floor amounted to the point differential in the game.
"They had to miss 15 or 16 free throws and it was a huge difference in the game," Blind said. "There were a lot of fouls called, both teams got into the bonus situation very quickly. The difference in made versus missed free throws played a big, big part in the game today."
Rosenberg continued: "It was big. They missed a lot of foul shots. That was the turning point in the game. I think they could have taken the lead. I don't know how well we shot, but I think we shot very well. I'm just really proud of everyone on the team."
As the clocked ticked down on Carteret's season and the Millburn student section began to chant the old victory standby of "Na Na Na Na, Hey, Hey, Hey, Goodbye," word traveled through the gym that No. 1-seeded Mendham had beaten Newark East Side in overtime to set up an epic tournament finals match-up Monday night between the top two teams in the field. Mendham and Millburn have a combined record of 47-6 this season and many, including Millburn head coach Rodger Blind, foresee what could very well turn out to be one of the best games of the season in the entire state of New Jersey.
"Mendham is a very good team, Morris County champions," Blind said. "They run a lot of good sets. It's going to be a great game. I think the place will be packed up there, it will be a great atmosphere. You have the No. 1 seed versus the No. 2 seed and it's just going to be a great game."
A great game indeed and no matter what happens, a fitting end to an extremely exciting tournament.