BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - On senior night at Governor Livingston, the Highlanders faced a visiting Chatham squad that had struggled of late. After grinding out wins against Summit and Cranford last week, the Highlanders looked like the favorites against the Cougars, especially considering that Chatham was coming off a tough loss over the weekend to Delbarton in the Morris County Tournament. However, the Cougars defeated the Highlanders 35-29 in a defensive struggle on Monday night.
Both teams struggled mightily from the field in the first quarter and the score at the end of the first eight minutes of the game was just 4-4. Each team played solid defense and contested every shot, many of which were taken after several runs through the set half-court offenses the teams ran.
The toughness with which each team guarded the other in the opening frame set the tone for how the rest of the game would play out. "We did a good job defensively all night," Governor Livingston head coach Steve Petruzzelli said after the game. "I had no problem with our guys' effort. I thought defensively we did a real good job. We followed some game plan things and we didn't rely only on Kevin. That's a big thing, because when you rely solely on him, then you're in trouble. Defensively we were very good."
Things began to heat up offensively in the second quarter as both teams started to find small cracks in the other's defense. The Highlanders got a big lift when 6-8 junior center Kevin Ferguson entered the game at the beginning of the second period. Petruzzelli began the game with his five seniors who were being honored for their commitments not only to the basketball team, but to Governor Livingston High School as a whole. Ferguson provided a spark on both ends of the court as he scored four straight points and blocked a couple of shots in the quarter. However, Chatham's best player, junior forward Rob Conroy, drilled a three with just under a minute to go and the Cougars led at the half, 18-16.
After the game, Petruzzelli described why his team had such a difficult time converting baskets throughout the game, even after Ferguson came into the game and gave the Highlanders a spark. "[Ferguson] had a real good game. Then they came in and started doubling him more and banging him around," Petruzzelli said. "We didn't take advantage of things they gave us off of him. We're not seeing people at all. We're late in our delivery to everybody. We didn't hit those openings, especially against a good defensive team and Chatham is very well-coached. You know, when Kevin's open, he's not going to be open forever."
Governor Livingston erased the small two-point halftime deficit in the third quarter thanks mostly to Ferguson and the fact that the Cougars went cold from the field. Again, both teams struggled to put the ball in the basket and the Highlanders did the Cougars two points better in the third to tie the game heading into the fourth quarter at 22 all.
The Cougars pulled away midway through the fourth quarter thanks to strong guard play and the ability to finally bury a few outside jumpers while the Highlanders continued to struggle. Brian Ballard and Adam Kovonuk each hit three pointers as the Cougars went on an 8-1 run to start the fourth quarter. That run would turn out to be the difference as the Highlanders never got going from the field.
"We were just trying to find someone who was going to give us something [offensively] and Kovonuck came in and hit a three and had some assists, made some good plays, so he helped us. And we were just looking for someone to do something for us," Chatham head coach Todd Ervin said after the game.
The Highlanders played great defense and used their physicality to draw fouls and get to the free throw line, but once at the charity stripe, Governor Livingston had trouble knocking down their free throws. It has been an issue for the team all season and after the game, Petruzelli addressed it along with the Highlanders continued shooting troubles from basically everywhere on the court. "That [free throw shooting] has been a real dismal problem for us," Petruzzelli said. "Some of our offensive woes were due to them. They're very well-coached and they're very good defensively. We didn't score. We gotta score. You can't score 29 points and shoot 20 percent." "But we'll prepare and try to bounce back against New Providence," he added.
In a hard-fought defensive battle of a basketball game, Chatham found enough offense to pull out a tough victory on the road. The significance of the win was not lost on Ervin, his team having lost to Delbarton on Saturday and having dropped a heart-breaking, quadruple overtime thriller to Madison last Wednesday. Because of those two losses and the winter weather, Chatham had not been victorious since February 16th when they beat Morris Catholic. "We played well defensively, Ervin said. "I think that's the difference. I know they only had 29 points. I don't think they shot real well, but we played well defensively. We didn't play real well on offense, but we played well enough to win. We needed to get a win. We had to get something going getting ready for the states, so it's a big win."
The win raised Chatham's record to 14-10 while Governor Livingston slipped to 13-9. Ferguson led the Highlanders with 12 points and Rob Ingebretsen chipped in 10, while Conroy led the Cougars with 8 points.