MILLBURN, NJ - There is no more appropriate way for a team to give its coach a milestone victory than with the nearly perfect execution of a game plan.
The eighth-seeded Millburn boys basketball team ran its offense with surgical precision and defeated ninth-seeded Montclair, 55-39, Saturday in the first round of the Essex County Tournament for coach Rodger Blind's 300th career victory.
Senior swingman Ross Gang scored 20 points, grabbed nine rebounds and passed for three assists, but on this day Millburn (19-2) was much more than a one-man gang, as Bryan Levy connected for 14 points and handed out four assists, and point guard Matt Bernstein scored 10 points and led the Millers with seven assists.
And everyone on the floor had a hand in an offense that operated with supreme patience and dissected the Mounties' defense with a level of execution that would make any coach proud.
"We had to control the game with our offensive execution," Bernstein said, "and limit their chances to run. We got a lot of layups off our ball movement."
Millburn led, 27-23, early in the third quarter before closing out the period with a 12-1 run. On each of the six baskets that comprised the spurt, there was an assist on the field goal, with Bernstein feeding Gang twice for layups, and Bernstein scoring six points himself on a pair of assists from Levy and one from Gang. Ethan Fine also had a bucket (with a pass from Bernstein) to ignite the run.
"A point of emphasis today was to control the game with our offense and make them impatient," Gang explained. "When the ball is moving, the defense is moving, and after two or three passes the driving lanes open up."
When Millburn wasn't scoring off a pinpoint pass to a teammate making a crisp cut to the basket, the Millers were getting points by breaking down the defense and driving the lane or the baseline. Of Millburn's 23 field goals, 20 of them were layups. Levy sank a pair of 3-pointers and Joe Blum hit a '3' for the only three buckets the Millers made from outside the paint.
As if advancing in the county tournament and winning a milestone game for Blind--who also coached at West Orange High School and had a stint at Division 1 St. Peter's University--weren't enough motivation, the Millers were also driven by their desire to prove that there's real substance behind their gaudy record.
Although Millburn and Montclair, both Group 4 schools, were given seeds right next to each other in the tournament, their won-lost records are not even comparable. Montclair (6-12) knocks heads with many tough opponents while Millburn resides in a lower division of the Super Essex Conference.
"We lost seven seniors from last year's team, so all year long, we've been trying to prove ourselves," Bernstein said. "Now we're one of the final eight in Essex County, and we're happy we were able to win this for coach Blind."
Millburn will play a quarterfinal round game next Saturday, most likely against top-seeded Seton Hall Prep. Time and site will be announced.