SUMMIT, NJ - It is way too early to call them 'The Comeback Kids', but this was a comeback that, someday, many might just tell their kids about.
Pitted against a Warren Hills team that essentially got off their bus making three-balls and shooting lights out, the Hilltoppers found themselves down by a whopping 18 points after one quarter, an opening eight minutes that saw their opponent miss just two shots from the field and drain seven shots from beyond the arc, all while racking up a remarkable 28 points.
In between the first and second quarters, Summit Head Coach Dan Healy got out the smelling salts, helping his young team -- which had taken a standing eight count over the opening eight minutes -- regain its footing. The metaphorical compound offered by Healy was a measured tonal delivery of a basic message: "do a better job of what we are doing."
Put that message through the 'coachspeak' translator and one gets 'start playing better defense, go over Warren Hills' ball screens and not under them, your opponent will start to cool off and we can make a run.'
And, as soon as one could say 'third quarter', Healy's message had become reality, Summit had erased the deficit and pushed ahead. All that was left was to close the deal, and the Hilltoppers did just that, earning a 65-57 victory over the Blue Streaks at the Main Gym and moving on to round two of the NJSIAA North 2, Group 3 state tournament.
Sophomore Malcolm Sidebottom scored 21 points and senior captain Will Schaffer had 18 to lead Summit who, after the opening frame, outscored their opponents 55-29. Warren Hills' James Jordan led all scorers with 22, while Isaac Aziz added 14, with all of his points coming in the first half.
The Hilltoppers were shot right off the court in the first quarter, their lack of applying adequate defensive pressure on the Blue Streaks' shooters leading to a much too comfortable environment for the visitors. Still, full credit to Warren Hills for knocking down virtually everything, including a 30-foot heave at the buzzer that rattled around the rim, dinged off the glass and, tauntingly, feel through the twine. Summit was left shell-shocked and searching for a toe-hold.
The Hilltoppers did way better than that in the second quarter, actually climbing up and finding a ledge by winning the quarter 19-5 and trimming the mountainous 18-point deficit to a molehill-like four points by halftime.
After chipping away and whittling the lead to 11, sophomore guard Finbar McCormick drained a three and it was 33-25. Schaffer then drove to the basket and finished with a Houdini-like move to make it 33-27 with 1:10 left. Sidebottom dribbled right, pulled up and hit a 12-footer with 10 seconds remaining in the half and the deficit was just four, at 33-29, as the teams went to their locker rooms.
The third quarter was a near mirror image of the second, as the Hilltoppers finally pulled even at 41-41 when freshman Joe Lusardi knocked down two free throws. Sophomore Dom Yorio -- whose rebounding and hustle exemplified Summit's 'this one is ours' mentality over the game's final 24 minutes -- put The Maroon & White ahead for good when he scored inside on the next possession. After being down 20 points in the second quarter, Summit had come all the way back to lead 43-41.
The game stayed tight throughout a fourth quarter that began with the Hilltoppers leading 45-42. Sidebottom looked to have put Summit in the clear when he, in order, hit back-to-back three's and then threw a no-look, honey-of-a-pass to Schaffer for a layup, all of which added up to a 53-45 lead for the home side. The crowd was going 'bananas', the Hilltopper bench was on its feet, and all seemed well in the 07901.
But a series of turnovers and failed possessions allowed Warren Hills to climb back into it, with the Blue Streaks closing to a bucket, at 59-57, with two minutes left. Summit dug deep, however, with McCormick driving to the rim and finishing and then stealing the ball at the other end. Warren Hills would score no more, and Head Coach Dan Healy and his team had earned a memorable win.
Admitting more than 15 minutes after the final horn that he was still "stunned" by what his boys just did, Healy called the comeback effort "incredible, which is what I just told our team -- that they were incredible tonight."
Eighth-seeded Summit advances to the second round of the tournament, which will see them travel to Rahway to take on number-one seeded Indians March 2. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.