BASKING RIDGE, NJ -- Easton Smith has spent the last two seasons on the Ridge boys basketball team serving as the proverbial "glue guy," the player whose myriad contributions to the good of the program don't always show up in the boxscore.
But, on Senior Night, the Ridge senior guard provided not just the glue, but a tangible spark with a third quarter for the ages.
Smith scored 13 of his 15 points in a do-everything third quarter that enabled the Red Devils to break open a close game on their way to a 51-35 victory over Bernards before a raucous Friday evening crowd.
Ridge (13-7), which won for the 11th time in its last 13 games, led, 26-22, at the half. In the first six minutes of the third quarter, Smith singlehandedly outscored the Mountaineers, 13-2. He started things by putting back a rebound for two points. After Bernards center Andrew Holmes hit a hook shot, Smith sank a baseline jumper.
After that, Ridge got its transition game in gear. Senior Stephen Portas fed center Jayden Hylton on the break, and Hylton passed to Smith streaking in for a layup. With four minutes left in the quarter, Smith took a decisive drive on the baseline and went up for a reverse layup and a 34-24 lead.
By this time, the crowd was starting to cheer every move by Smith, who came in averaging 5.0 points per game. He was fouled going strong to the basket and made both free throws. Finally, another baseline drive by Smith resulted in a layup as he was getting fouled. Smith made the foul shot to complete the three-point play and give the Red Devils a 39-26 lead.
"No, I've never (had a quarter like that). This was definitely crazy," Smith said. "I was just attacking the rim. It felt like after halftime the team needed an energy boost. Senior year, this is my last year, and it was special to have a quarter like that in front of the home fans."
As is frequently the case, Smith's contributions went well beyond his scoring Friday night. He ignited Ridge with his work on the boards, several deflections, two assists, and some stellar individual defense on Bernards forward Eddy Gambelli, who just one night before had scored 43 points against Warren Tech. Gambelli had 11 points against Ridge, but was scoreless while being marked by Smith for much of the decisive third quarter.
"He guarded Gambelli and didn't let him touch the ball," Ridge head coach Brian Feath said. "He's come a long way. Easton is a super kid, and he's a team guy first."
Holmes led Bernards (11-10) with 12 points, half of them coming in a 12-6 Mountaineers run bridging the first two quarters that left them with their only lead of the game, 20-19, with 3:55 left in the first half.
When Smith (whose sister, Taylor, is the leading scorer on the Ridge girls basketball team) first joined the team last season as a transfer from Kinnelon, it took him awhile to learn Ridge's system.
"He is so much better defensively after a year in our system," Feath said. "He's been starting to score a little more. For the last month, Easton has been one of our best players on both ends of the floor."
Ridge's two most prominent players this season have both been sophomores, Hylton and guard Gavin Kreitz. But in addition to Smith's stellar performance, senior guard Nate Herrera scored 14 points for Ridge. Portas canned an early 3-pointer to get Ridge's offense going and played a strong floor game. Those three, plus senior center Kristian Springsteel, all started for Ridge along with Hylton.
Kreitz, Ridge's leading scorer on the season with 15, and Hylton both scored below their normal averages, but were still integral to the victory. Kreitz had only five points, but passed up some shots he'd normally take to facilitate his teammates, and finished with a team-high six assists. Hylton had eight points, a team-high 14 rebounds and four blocked shots.
"It's great to see these seniors go out with a win on Senior Night," Feath said. "They're great kids with good personalities. I can't say enough about these guys."