BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - The Gov. Livingston boys' basketball team took the coaches and a gym packed full of hometown fans on a wild roller coaster of emotions as they hung on to beat the Middletown North Lions 55-49 in the first round of the NJSIAA North Jersey, Group 3 Section II tournament Monday night in Berkeley Heights.
Gov. Livingston looked to be comfortably on their way to their first playoff since 2011 as they opened up an 18 point halftime lead. However, Middletown North owned the next 10 minutes of the game as they outscored Gov. Livingston 21-2 to take their first lead of the game early in the fourth quarter. Suddenly, facing a season ending loss, the Highlanders roared back on top and played their finest closing three minutes of any game this season to secure the win. Now it's on to Chatham Wednesday night to face the Morris County Champion Cougars (23-5), who defeated a tough Orange squad [55-45] in their first round game.
After Highlander junior guard Josh Coldon (10 pts, 10 assists) opened the games scoring on a pull up jumper, Middletown North knotted the game at two as both teams cautiously began an early game feeling out process. The contest took an unpredictable abrupt turn two minutes in as Gov. Livingston stunned Middletown North scoring 16 straight points as Coldon powered the Highlanders with a pair of deep three balls. The Highlander defense was the key to the run, as the Lions' leading scorer Rob Higgins (12 pts), who averages 28.8 points per game, was guarded full court, nose to nose by senior Evan Reiner, who with the help of a beautifully designed doubling defense, forced Higgins to give up the ball. With Higgins teammates having a hard time finding their range, the Highlanders put together a monster 25 point first quarter.
“It was a lot of confidence coming from the defensive side,” Coldon said. “We were getting stops and it felt good when we came back on offense and it was kind of going both ways, so that’s why we were so successful in the first half.”
Senior Matt Schuman (14 pts) added six first quarter points, as the Highlanders offense continued to feed off their defense. The Highlanders, with Coldon moving the ball from the point, found some nice openings in the Lion defense leading to some great looks at the hoop.
“I feel like all season long, we’ve been getting good looks and they just don’t fall,” Governor Livingston head coach Chris Loeffler said. “We play on, we play hard [and] we play good defense. That’s what led us to get some open looks.”
The Highlanders maintained their momentum with superb shot selection in the second quarter. Getting balanced scoring from Coldon, senior Tyler McCulloch (6 pts), junior big Dylan DeFronzo(4 pts) and the game's leading scorer Matt Faller (16 pts), as they took a 39-21 lead into the locker room at the half.
As impressive as the Highlander offense was in the first half, it was the defensive efforts of Reiner and sophomore Vincent Mellusi harassing Higgins that completed the great first half of basketball the home team played. As the Highlanders ran into the locker room for halftime, the home town crowd showed the boys their appreciation with a raucous standing ovation.
Gov. Livingston had played 22 games before last night, and in the vast majority of those games the third quarter of play has proven to be the Highlanders Achilles heel all season. Unfortunately for Gov. Livingston, the third quarter of last night's game once again ended with the Highlanders battered and bruised physically and on the scoreboard as well.
Middletown Norths David Campbell (14 pts) and Sky Cherry (15 pts) caught fire as the Lions opened the quarter with 11 straight points. With Campbell doing the damage from long range and Cherry attacking the rim, Middletown North drew to within two points at 41-39 as the quarter came to a close.
Gov. Livingston struggled offensively, scoring only two points in the quarter, courtesy of 2 free throws. A combination of poor shot selection, a trapping Lion defense, and ball handler Coldon being sent to the bench with his third foul had the Highlanders reeling.
The Highlanders caught a break as Higgins, who was finally finding some success attacking the basket, also found himself regulated to bench with foul trouble. However, unlike in the first half when his teammates couldn’t find the bottom of the net, Campbell and Cherry dominated as the Lions outscored the Highlanders 18-2 in the third quarter.
The last quarter opened with Campbell draining a long three as Middletown North had erased the 18 point Highlander lead. Desperate for a hoop, Evan Reiner gave Governor Livingston a 43-42 lead with a nice drive to the rim before Cherry quickly gave Middletown North the lead back at 44-43 on a power move of his own.
Schuman, who has closed out the regular season in a big way, gave the Highlanders back the lead at 45-44 with a clutch mid-range jumper, a lead they would not relinquish.
“[Coach Loeffler] knew they weren’t going to go down without a fight, so, we had to keep our composure,” Schuman said. “We easily could’ve put our heads down and shut it down after they took the lead, after we were up by like 20 points.”
“We had to stick with our confidence, start hitting shots, believe in each other and we got the win today because we believed in our teammates and have fun,” he added.
Schuman's basket came with just over four minutes left in the game and it was obvious the contest was going to come down to free throw shooting as the Highlanders were clinging to a three point lead. The officials called a tight game with both teams in the double bonus down the stretch.
Gov. Livingston dug in on defense, making key consecutive stops on Lion possessions as the Highlander student section had the gym rocking.
Faller played a major part in the game's final minutes, scoring five points, including a key layup with 1:57 to give his team some breathing room at 52-47. After a Middletown North basket closed to within 52-49, Faller put the game away sinking his free throws in the closing seconds of the game.
“It was all defense,” Faller said. “[It was] just focusing in on defense, stopping them and then that gives us confidence on the offensive end, make free throws and win the game.”
With last night's dramatic playoff win Gov. Livingston extended their season for the first time under third year coach Chris Loefler.
“[We had to] weather the storm,” Loeffler said of what he told his players before the fourth quarter started. “[Middletown North] is going to hit shots. We just have to do the little things in-between that, kind of keep it close. We let that lead go, which is disappointing.”
In the win, Faller led his team with 16 points, while Schuman finished with 14 points. Coldon tallied ten points and added 10 dimes.
As for Middletown North's prolific scorer Higgins, Reiner and company held him to his lowest point total of the season with 12. Higgins, a junior, hasn’t scored that few points since the middle of his freshman season.
The Governor Livingston Highlanders (11-12) advanced to the NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 2, and Group 3 Quarterfinals for the first time since 2011. The 2011 Highlanders led by 6'11 Kevin Ferguson lost in state semi-finals to Raritan 41-39. The last time the Highlanders faced Chatham was in the 2013 playoffs when they dropped a 51-47 decision to the Cougars.
The game at Chatham HS Wednesday night, at 7 p.m., will surely sellout. It would be advised to get a ticket in advance.