WESTFIELD, NJ — Scotch Plains-Fanwood had just turned the ball over when Westfield’s Mark Natiello recovered it and came sprinting down court, looking to make it a one possession game. Dwight Laylor trailed him, and with two hands, pinned Natiello's layup off the glass with 6:35 left in the fourth quarter.
Jay Williams gathered the rebound and threw a long pass to an open Jack Brady on the opposite end of the court. Brady caught the ball just before the baseline, dished out a no look behind the back dime to a charging Laylor, who caught it, and sent the gym into a fit of hysteria with a rim-rattling slam.
It was that kind of night for Scotch Plains-Fanwood.
In a commanding effort over neighboring rival, the Raiders executed on all ends and took home a 65-50 win Monday night in a playoff-like atmosphere at Westfield -- even though only the Raiders will be playing postseason basketball this year. Westfield's gym, where the Raiders lost by 34 points at last time they visited, was overtaken by Scotch Plains-Fanwood fans.
Lamont Cruse dropped a team-high 17 points while Brady added 12 to pace the Raiders, now 18-4 entering their biggest game of the season Wednesday against New Providence, in the county tournament second round. The Raiders opened up the game on a scintillating 12-1 run and closed it on a 22-12 one, trailing just once the entire game to a Westfield team that finishes its season at 5-17.
Nine of Cruse’s 17 points came at the foul line during the fourth quarter, which Scotch Plains-Fanwood entered with just a five point lead after Westfield had fought back on a 16-4 third quarter run. The Raiders outscored the Blue Devils, 20-10, in the overpowering frame and received 17 total foul shots during the eight minute period.
Arguably, the game was won at the foul line. The Raiders shot 28-for-35 (80 percent) from the charity stripe, while Westfield hit just 8-of-18 free throws (44 percent). When the home team battled back and took a 38-36 lead during the third quarter, the line is where the Raiders were able to reclaim the lead. They hit 22 second half free throws despite draining just four field goals over the last two quarters.
Though Scotch Plains-Fanwood took a commanding 22-12 lead into halftime, Westfield responded with a 16-4 run out of the break. Adam McDaniel hit consecutive threes 30 seconds apart, the second of which tied the game at 36. Just 24 seconds later, Matt Crowley banked layup with 3:06 left in the quarter, which put Westfield ahead, 38-36.
That would be the only time the Raiders trailed all night, as a minute later, Brady was fouled in the process of a layup and hit both shots. Those free throws gave the Raiders a 40-38 advantage, and they'd never look back.
Westfield's run midway through the game could have been a lot more damaging if it weren't for the Raiders' thunderous opening. Brady opened the game with a three-pointer to kick start a 12-1 run. SPF's air tight defense held Westfield without a field goal for the game's first six minutes, and by that time, the Raiders had already built a double digit advantage.
At the end of the opening quarter, the Raiders opened up a 15-5 lead. However, that was quickly challenged by a battle-tested Westfield squad.
McDaniel, who finished with a game-high of 19 points, cut the Raiders’ lead to 19-16 with a pull-up three two minutes into the second quarter. But as they continuously did all evening, Scotch Plains-Fanwood answered quickly and strongly — this time, it was a 13-3 run that further separated the Raiders. The overwhelming stretch was highlighted by Jay Williams’ coast-to-coast “jelly” layup, which gave his team a 32-19 lead with 1:30 left before halftime.
Perhaps the electric atmosphere that resembles those of bigger games will help prepare the Raiders for their next task. On Wednesday, Scotch Plains-Fanwood travels to New Providence and looks to avenge a double OT loss on Feb. 3 against the Pioneers with the stakes much higher in the Union County Tournament second round.