LINDEN, NJ -- A year from now, the Ridge boys basketball team is not likely to be a well-kept secret anymore.
With a young nucleus of talented, determined and fearless players, 14th-seeded Ridge lost a 42-40 decision to third-seeded Linden Tuesday night in the first round of the Section 2, Group 4 state tournament in a game that was razor close for most of its 32 minutes.
It was never more than a two-possession game at any point from start to finish.
Linden (17-9), after leading by five early in the second half, survived a last-second baseline inbounds pass that almost resulted in a game-tying Ridge layup at the buzzer.
Sophomore guard Gavin Kreitz led Ridge with 19 points, and senior guard Nate Herrera closed out a distinguished career at Ridge with a superb all-around offensive and defensive effort that included 11 points and two assists before he fouled out with 33 seconds left.
While Ridge head coach Brian Feath spoke about how much his four seniors--Herrera, Easton Smith, Stephen Portas and Kris Springsteel--will be missed from the program, the Red Devils overcame a 2-5 start to take the section's third-seeded team down to the buzzer in enemy territory with a youthful core of players that includes Kreitz, sophomore center Jayden Hylton, sophomore guard Colin Lombardi and freshman guard Nick Losada.
Tuesday night, Ridge came out in a 2/3 zone despite Linden's proclivity for shooting 3-pointers. Ridge made Linden slow the game down, executed that halfcourt zone superbly and ran a disciplined, Princeton-style offense effectively enough to take a 21-18 lead into the half against the Tigers. Ridge made seven of its 13 shots in the first half, while Linden was just seven-for-21, but the bigger Tigers held a commanding halftime edge on the glass, with 12 rebounds to Ridge's seven.
"Linden is a disciplined team in their offense. They are very patient," Feath said. "But they still are very athletic. We did not want to get into a race with these guys, and the zone really did keep that from happening. I thought if we could win the first four minutes of the game, I felt good about our chances, and we did that."
Linden used more dribble penetration and drive-and-kicks against the zone early in the third quarter to score the first eight points of the half and open a 26-21 lead. But Ridge not only came back, the Red Devils took the lead, responding with six points in a row on a free throw by Hylton, a 3-pointer by Herrera and a layup by a cutting Hylton with a pass from Kreitz for a 27-26 lead with 2:09 left in the third quarter.
That would be Ridge's last lead, but after Linden went back out in front by five early in the fourth quarter, the Red Devils again clawed back to tie it up, 38-38. A key play in that comeback was a 4-point play by Kreitz in which he nailed a corner 3-pointer while getting fouled and falling out of bounds, and then hit the ensuing free throw. Kreitz finished with four treys in eight attempts in the game. With 2:55 left Hylton's layup assisted by Herrera tied it, 38-38. Hylton finished with seven points and nine rebounds.
"This is a basketball group that does not play on their heels," Feath said of his team. "Nate is a battler who gets it done for us at both ends. He is not scared of a thing."
Guard Charles Lovett sank a pullup jumper to give Linden a 40-38 lead. After Linden extended that lead with a foul shot, Kreitz hit two free throws with 1:44 left to bring Ridge within one, 41-40. Nashawn Holmes, who led Linden with 12 points, went to the line for a one-and-one with 33 seconds, made the first and missed the second, with Hylton controlling the rebound.
From that point, Ridge--trailing, 42-40--actually had possession of the ball for the game's last 33 seconds. Problem for the Red Devils was, Linden had three fouls to give, and the Tigers gave every one of them, all of them on the floor to repeatedly give Ridge a side-out re-set while precious seconds kept ticking off the clock.
Finally, the Red Devils had one last inbounds with 2.4 seconds left. Smith triggered from under the basket, Hylton got free in the lane, caught the inbounds pass, but his layup attempt in traffic curled off the rim as time ran out.
"They killed a lot of clock with the fouls to give, but we still got a great look there at the end," Feath said.
"We battled 'til the end. These guys played with huge hearts and were not intimidated in the least," Feath said. "This was a great experience for the young guys. Now, for them, next year will be time for them to take it to another level. If they stay together, it's all there for them. But I love my old guys--I'm gonna miss our four seniors."