WEST ORANGE, NJ -- After building a 14-point lead after one quarter, the West Orange boys basketball team withstood a 40-minute fire alarm delay and a furious Columbia rally before righting the ship in the fourth quarter for a 50-38 victory Saturday afternoon at Tarnoff Gym.
The Mountaineers, who led, 17-3, after one quarter, had their mettle tested when the Cougars came back to tie the game late in the third quarter. But West Orange took control of the game for good with a 14-0 run bridging the third and fourth quarters.
In between all that, both teams and all spectators were forced to evacuate the gym for a half hour with 2:53 to go in the second quarter when the school's fire alarms went off. Athletic director Ron Bligh said that fire officials who responded to the alarms termed the incident a "malfunction," and the game resumed with both teams having to warm up from scratch.
After the delay, Columbia (5-4) came out the hotter team, closing to within seven points by halftime and tying the game, 25-25, with 2:39 left in the third quarter. But from the point when Gustav Hall, who led West Orange with 10 points, sank two foul shots with two seconds left in the third quarter, the Mountaineers reeled off 14 points in a row to take a 42-27 lead.
During the spurt, Hall, Johan Atwell and Amiyn Hanks drilled three consecutive 3-pointers for West Orange (3-4), which had made just one basket in the second quarter after its defense held Columbia to just one bucket in the first quarter.
"Our boys came out with great energy and did a lot of talking on defense," West Orange head coach Demond Cowins said. "That helped propel our momentum to get out and run. We tell the boys that if they play good defense and rebound that will help us get the ball up the court."
West Orange, which was taking on a Columbia team that came into Saturday's game playing very well lately, pestered the Cougars early with a halfcourt zone defense "with a mix of man to man," Cowins said.
Chris Latimer scored five points and forward Elijah Garris came off the bench to score four points in the first quarter for West Orange. But Columbia, which has shown resiliency to claw back from early deficits in other games this season, got seven points from guard Nigel Garcia in the second quarter and had closed the gap to 19-12 when the alarms went off. Garcia led all scorers with 13 points.
"After that fire alarm, we were out there at least a half hour," Cowins said. "But after Columbia came back, our boys responded to our coaching and to Columbia's adjustments and showed that they could handle pressure."
Hall ended up leading West Orange in scoring despite going scoreless until two seconds were left in the third quarter. He sank five of six free throws down the stretch and steadied West Orange's offense as Columbia threw a blistering full-court press at the Mountaineers in an effort to come back.
"Gustav is one of the hardest working guys on our team, and he has a 4.5 GPA, too," Cowins said. "He realizes, 'I'm a senior and the lead guard and I'll do what I have to to lead'."
Cowins took an extra measure of satisfaction in beating a Columbia team that, although very young, has already shown itself to be a dangerous out in Essex County this winter.
"Columbia beat East Side and Montclair, and I have a lot of respect for Coach 'Bamm' (Eugene Robinson)," Cowins said. "For us to hold them under 40 is a testament to how hard our boys worked. We made them take tough shots.
"I believe that if we play defense and work together, and share the ball on offense, that we can be one of the top teams in (Essex) County."