MONTGOMERY TOWNSHIP, NJ - There were many tears shed. There was a great deal of frustration voiced by many who remained some 30 minutes after the game had ended. But if one word could sum up what the majority of the supporters of the East Brunswick Boys Basketball team felt at the end of their bitter, controversial loss to Montgomery High School, it would be "heartbreak."
Heartbreak that the season was over. Heartbreak that the careers of star players Amir Bell and Garry Baumer were abruptly ended. Most of all, heartbreak that perhaps, quite possibly, they should have had a foul shot to take that would have forced an overtime period, as the Bears fell a point short, losing to the Cougars, 47-46, on Montgomery's home floor.
Make no mistake about it, this game was a war from beginning to end, and Montgomery proved deserving of all of their accolades and its No. 1 seeding coming into the tournament. The Cougars were determined to play a physical, aggressive style. The intent was to try to control both Bell and Baumer. Bell from penetrating on the inside, and Baumer from having any time to establish position to shoot freely from the outside.
Right from the opening tip, it was clear that the referees made a decision to allow these two teams to decide the game on their own, and they let both teams establish their physical presence, and Montgomery took full advantage of that in the first quarter, jumping out to a 17-9 lead by the time the first quarter ended.
It seemed that every time that Bell touched the ball, he was double-teamed, and he had to work hard for every drive and shot, both inside and outside. Baumer found the going very tough in the early part of the game as well, seemingly unable to find his normal deadly shooting rhythm. In fact, it was Alex Fitzgerald who got the Bears untracked early, hitting a couple of key shots to keep the Bears in the game.
The Bears got much more aggressive in the second quarter, and with that, came a rally which got them to within 26-24 by halftime. The physical play continued throughout the first half on both ends of the floor, and the Cougars relied heavily on their defense, which forced a number of Bear turnovers. Justin Kovacevich and Greg Targa both were very physical down low for Montgomery, and Chase Ta used his quickness to penetrate throughout the half.
The second half saw more of the same, and the Bears got great contributions from their bench, as John McHenry, Addis Ralph, and Matt Ross all delivered key minutes spelling the starters. The third quarter continued the physical play, and back and forth battling, and despite the Bears taking the lead for a time in the quarter, it ended with Montgomery leading 34-32. The chippy, physical play that marked the first three quarters continued as the fourth quarter commenced, however both teams saw a couple of quick whistles against them, and many in the crowd started to wonder if maybe the officials were going to change the pattern and attempt to take control of the game down the stretch. But that was not the case, and the physical play continued unabated.
The Cougars lead grew to 41-38 with about two minutes to play, when Ta drove the lane and scored on a layup, and when Bell drove for a layup to cut the lead back to one, they elected to start fouling. Ta made two key free throws to make the lead 43-40, and after a Bears miss, Ta was fouled again, making both shots, and increasing the lead to 45-40. The Bears raced downcourt, and when Matt Ross hit a long three-pointer to cut the lead to 45-43, there was still hope. After a Bears timeout, they were able to foul the Cougars' Justin Kovacevich with 10.2 seconds remaining. Kovacevich calmly sank both free throws, allowing the top seeds to go 6 out of 6 from the charity stripe in the final minute, clearly the key to their victory.
The Bears had one more chance, and Bell took the inbounds pass and fired it over to Ross, who hoisted up his three-point attempt with two or three Cougar players clearly draped all over him, the shot hit nothing but net, but to the amazement of Bears Coach Mark Motuesky, all the Bears players, and the entire crowd, no whistle was heard. The final buzzer sounded, and the Cougars escaped with their one point victory.
In comments made to NJ.com after the game, both coaches clearly expected a foul to be called on the play:
"(Ross) almost got fouled," Montgomery coach Kris Grundy said. "They could have called that, but they were letting us play."
East Brunswick coach Mark Motusesky agreed with Grundy, and thought his team should have had a chance at a game-tying free throw.
"I thought he got hit pretty hard," East Brunswick coach Mark Motusesky said. "But I guess they don't like to call those late. But, when it's that hard of a foul, I thought they should have blown the whistle."
The Bears end their season with a record of 19-7, while Montgomery advances to the Group 4 title game against Trenton on Tuesday night.
For the Bears and their supporters, a wonderful season will forever be left with the wonder of what might have been.