MILLBURN, NJ - Six minutes into its state tournament game against Piscataway, the Millburn boys basketball team had a nine-point lead.
Normally under those circumstances, that's a big enough spread to enable the Millers to set the tempo and impose their will on an opponent with their customary disciplined, patient offensive style.
But Piscataway would have none of it.
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The fifth-seeded Chiefs came right back to grab a five-point lead by the middle of the second quarter, and for the rest of the way, fourth-seeded Millburn was forced to play uphill. Mattias Arrindel scored 17 points to lead Piscataway to a 57-45 victory in the quarterfinal round of the NJSIAA Section 2, Group 4 tournament Thursday night.
Stellar senior swingman Ross Gang scored six of his 20 points right out of the gate as Millburn (23-4) established an 11-4 lead and looked poised to patent another of its clinics in scintillating fundamental basketball. But that's not nearly so easy to sustain when your opponent has won 23 games itself, and when that opponent possesses more size, athletic ability and shooting versatility than almost any team you've seen all season.
Arrindel led the charge back, as Piscataway (23-3) ran off 12 straight points during a stretch bridging the first two quarters to swipe a 16-11 lead and the early momentum away from the Millers. Arrindel had 10 points in the first half, which closed with Piscataway ahead, 20-17.
Millburn clawed back to take one more ever-so-brief lead, 21-20, early in the second half on a putback by Gang, but Piscataway responded to that with a 9-0 run to take a 29-21 lead. Millburn was unable to run its halfcourt offense with its customary efficiency against a Piscataway 2/3 zone defense that made it tough for the Millers to get high-percentage baskets off the crisp cuts and patient ball movement on which they usually thrive. Millburn was 7-for-16 from the field in the first half, and just 1-of-5 from 3-point range.
A 3-pointer by Bryan Levy early in the fourth quarter brought Millburn within six, 36-30, but a 3-pointer, two layups and a putback put Piscataway in the driver's seat with a 45-32 lead.
Millburn, which greatly exceeded the expectations of many in a season with four new starters surrounding the 6-foot-6 Gang, had one more salvo left in it. Switching to full-court, run-and-jump pressure for the first time in many games, the Millers threw a scare into the visitors from Middlesex County, forcing several quick turnovers. Joe Blum sank a free throw, Matt Bernstein turned a steal into a layup and converted the ensuing free throw for a 3-point play, Gang made a steal and sank one of two free throws, and Levy drove for a basket after another Piscataway turnover.
Millburn was back in the game, down six, 45-39, with 2:31 left.
But Piscataway sank 8 of 12 foul shots over the final 1:32 to put the game away.
Antonio Chandler finished with 15 points for Piscataway. Levy had eight points for Millburn, and Bernstein finished with seven points, five assists and four steals in the loss.
Despite a roster with scant collective varsity experience, Millburn matched the school record for victories in a season with 23 this winter.