SUMMIT, NJ - It took nearly 30 games, but the Summit High School Boys Varsity Basketball Team -- unfortunately for Hilltopper Nation -- finally found its Payne threshold.
That's Payne as in 11th-seeded Payne Tech, which came into their matchup with the third-seeded Hilltoppers at the Main Gym fast off an upset win over sixth-seeded Rahway, so the fact that the opponent was going to be formidable was not a surprise to the home team. The Lions proved their giant-slayer status is well-deserved, knocking off the second straight higher seed they faced by defeating the Maroon and White, 57-55 in overtime.
The loss ends Summit's season with a record of 24-4, the 24 wins in a campaign believed to tie the all-time high-water mark held by the 1972-73 and 2003-04 squads. In piling up those 24 wins, Summit won 18 games in a row, a streak that started on January 7 and lasted until a Union County Tournament defeat to Roselle Catholic on February 22. It is also believed that the 18-game streak sets an all-time school record for consecutive wins by a Hilltopper Boys Varsity hoops unit.
In addition, senior captain Eric Baier passed the 1,000-point mark on February 4 and just kept going, ending his career with 1,230 and fifth-place on the all-time school career points list -- ahead of Wellington Smith and just one point shy of Ba'Shawn Mickens.
The Summit story against Payne Tech was a familiar one, albeit with an unfamiliar ending.
Summit at times was great and at other times not-so-much but, led by the talent and tenacity of its senior captains, the Hilltoppers would find a way night-after-night throughout the season to emerge victorious -- especially in close games -- with their last setback in a nail-biter coming against Oratory Prep on January 3, a defeat was then followed by the team's epic winning run.
Payne Tech apparently did not get a copy of that script.
Summit led 14-9 after the opening eight minutes and 25-23 at the half, but then played a less than stellar third quarter -- one that featured cold shooting and turnovers -- and got outscored 12-7 to trail 35-32 after three quarters. The 'Top got back on its game in the final frame, getting defensive stops and becoming more aggressive offensively. Led by Baier -- who had a game-high 27 points plus eight rebounds -- the Hiltoppers climbed back just enough to tie the game at 45 and send the contest to bonus basketball.
In the overtime session, Summit found itself down by six points with 20 seconds to go, but Baier drained a three-ball to halve the deficit. The Hilltoppers were still down two with 5.2 seconds left and Payne Tech on the free throw line. Two makes from the charity stripe and there would be no way back this time for Summit, however Payne Tech was judged to have committed a lane violation on the free throw and the Hilltoppers were awarded the ball.
Baier went the length of the floor, got to the rim, but the ball wouldn't drop, and Summit's season of milestones came to a close.
Senior captain Joe Lusardi had 12 points and four rebounds, senior captain Will Hellings had 8 points and 11 'boards, and classmate Jalen Russell also scored eight for Summit.
Ibn Everett (17) and Zaire Jefferson (14) were the offensive stars for Payne Tech, which also got 9 from Payton Miranda and 8 points from Sultan Sharif.
In the wake of a heartbreaking loss that concludes what was a magnificent season, Summit Head Coach Tim Simo said, "I told them (the team) I loved them, and we all got together and said 'Family' one last time. Incredible group of young men. Very special to me and the rest of my staff."