CLARK, NJ - Heading into Tuesday evening's Union County Tournament first round match-up between Governor Livingston and Elizabeth, a hockey term could have been applied to the advantage that the Minutemen enjoyed, though they did nothing to bring said advantage about, nor were they happy about the circumstances surrounding it. The Minutemen were on a "power play" to start the game and - unlike such a situation on the ice in hockey - the advantage didn't expire after two or even five minutes. In fact, Elizabeth's power play lasted all game long. For the Highlanders, they were put at a disadvantage for their showdown against Elizabeth last Friday night when starting point guard Max Machado broke a bone in his foot during Governor Livingston's 69-63 loss at Rahway. It was a huge blow to the Highlanders' tournament hopes, one that was sustained before the Union County Tournament even tipped off.
After a tough six-point loss in which his team struggled to bring the ball up the court in the face of a relentless Minutemen press, Governor Livingston's head coach shook his head and said simply, "It was a very tough team to play without Max." Such is life without your starting point guard.
Machado is many things to the Highlanders and one of them - the thing they missed sorely all night long - is a smart point guard who can protect the ball, get it across half court and set up the offense. Without their point guard, the Highlanders struggled mightily against Elizabeth's press for the entire 32 minutes and broke down almost completely in the third quarter when they turned the ball over 14 times.
The Minutemen came into the Union County Tournament suffering through a down year, owners of a 5-15 overall record. Elizabeth recently fell to St. Anthony - the Number 4 ranked team in the state - by 53 points, but managed to secure an 8 seed when the Tournament brackets were announced.
The Highlanders were of course given a 9 seed and the first round match-up did not disappoint as both teams played to their strengths and did their best to exploit their opponents' weaknesses.
Elizabeth jumped out to an early 7-0 lead before the Highlanders got on the board. Thanks to a couple of nice buckets scored inside by Governor Livingston's 6-8 center Kevin Ferguson, the Highlanders tied the score at 7-7 before Elizabeth nailed a couple of threes to take a 15-12 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Down 17-13 early in the second quarter, the Highlanders put together an impressive 14-3 run to end the first half and take a 27-24 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Governor Livingston was keyed by Rob Ingebretsen, a senior wing who stepped up big-time in Machado's absence. Ingebretsen continually beat to the hoop whichever Elizabeth player was unlucky enough to guard him. He scored nine points in the second period and tied Ferguson for the team lead for the game with 16.
"Some guys benefitted from [Elizabeth's pressure defense]. Rob [Ingebretsen] was able to get to the basket because he was able to beat his guy," Coach Petruzzelli said after the game. "When the other guys had the ball and couldn't get by their [defenders], that's when we got in trouble. Then we just got careless and a little nervous."
During the third quarter, Elizabeth began to exploit their "power play" as they ratcheted up the full court pressure on Governor Livingston's guards. Trailing by two points with the score at 35-33 and just under four minutes remaining in the third quarter, Elizabeth forced the Highlanders into turnovers on three of their next five possessions.
The Highlanders were also playing tight defense - Elizabeth coughed the ball up four times during a six possession stretch - but the Minutemen found the ability to sink three clutch shots to just one by Ferguson for Governor Livingston.
Point guard Jamil Jenkins was a miniature catalyst all night for the Minutemen and he split the defense and dropped in a lay-up to tie the game at 35. The Highlanders turned the ball over off the inbounds and Elizabeth's P.J. Walker drained a three from the corner after some nice ball movement to put the Minutemen up 38-35. Ferguson then executed a strong, powerful move inside and showed a soft touch as he hit a short, one-handed jumper while being fouled. After Ferguson hit the free throw and cashed in a three-point play to tie the game at 38-38, Elizabeth scored the final five points of the third quarter. They would not trail again.
The third quarter was a nightmare for Petruzzelli's team. The Highlanders turned the ball over 14 times - more than an entire game's worth of miscues - in just eight minutes of play.
The Minutemen also made their charge while Ingebretsen caught his breath. Despite Ferguson's nearly five-inch average height advantage over the rotation of forwards assigned to defend GL's center, the Highlanders struggled to feed him in the post. "Getting the ball to Kevin was a big part of what we wanted to do but we just weren't able to get it to him quite as much as we would have liked," Petruzzelli said. Ferguson played his heart out down low despite being double and often times triple-teamed by a swarming Elizabeth defense. The big junior finished with those 16 points, 12 rebounds and an unofficial total of eight blocks.
As the fourth quarter got underway, Governor Livingston dug deep several times to find the energy reserves that would allow them to keep up with the speedy Minutemen players, but the grind of a difficult tournament game was clearly wearing them down.
"I think a little bit of fatigue [was a reason] and no doubt about it, we would have liked to have had Max on the floor," Petruzelli said. His sentiments were echoed by Ingebretsen. "Yeah, we were definitely fatigued as a team [late in the game]. With Max being out, it was definitely detrimental to our team," the senior guard said after the game.
Running on fumes and still plagued by the turnovers that cost them an untold number of points on the scoreboard, the Highlanders played tough defense deep into the fourth quarter. Governor Livingston's gritty resolve kept the game close until the end - with 1:26 remaining, the outcome was still in question and it was a one possession game as the Highlanders were down only three points, 51-48.
The Minutemen began to run the clock-draining Four Corners offense - a weave far above the top of the key intended to milk the clock and force the team that is trailing to foul in order to stop the clock - when Andrew Marzo jumped in front of a pass and stole the ball.
Then the unthinkable happened and the ensuing play so deflated the Highlanders that defeat washed over the entire team in a heartbeat. After Marzo stole the ball, he immediately traveled and turned the ball over, handing possession right back to the Minutemen with just 55 seconds left. Marzo was stunned and the expression on his face was shared by every single one of his teammates. Elizabeth hit three of four free throws to ice the game and send the Highlanders home after a first round knockout.
Ingebretsen was obviously upset following his team's loss, but he tried to paint a positive picture about his team's effort on Tuesday night. "A couple of balls got away from us and were flying all around, but I think that a lot of guys stepped up and we put up a pretty good showing," Ingebretsen said. "But we're never going to be happy with a loss."
Also visibly frustrated following a game where his team was at a disadvantage before the opening tip, Ingebretsen's coach echoed his senior guards' sentiments. "We have been challenging our guys lately about their competitiveness," Petruzzelli said. "Lately, we haven't been as tough, as competitive as we have wanted to be and I think tonight we came back with some toughness and fire in us."
The Highlanders did not lack toughness or fire on Tuesday night. What they were missing was a point guard who could bring the ball up the court without losing it to the opponent's pressure.
With the state tournament just about two weeks away, Petruzzelli sounded more realistic than optimistic when discussing the very outside chance of Machado being ready to go when March rolls around. "[The medical staff] is saying a minimum of two weeks," Petruzzelli said of Machado's injury. "He's got a broken metatarsal bone in his foot. There is an outside shot that he could come back for the state tournament and if he can, he will. Right now they're saying that they're going to re-evaluate in two weeks and that's literally one day before we open the state tournament so it's not something that we can count on."
Whether or not Machado can play for the Highlanders during the state tournament, one thing is certain; Governor Livingston must - repeat, must - take better care of the basketball if they are to record one or more victories in their next and possibly final tournament appearance of the 2009-10 season.
"With Max out now, our perimeter guys are pretty young. With Max out right now, we're pretty thin at guard. Now we just kind of have to re-group and get ready for the state tournament," Petruzzelli said.
Rest assured that said preparation will involve countless hours teaching those young guards the unequaled importance of making sure the ball stays in the hands of the players wearing those red, white and blue jerseys. Especially if Machado's number 3 jersey is empty come tournament time.