Warren Hills boys basketball watches 18-point lead disappear but holds off North Hunterdon
It’s early January, but the Warren Hills Regional High School boys’ basketball team has already had a thrilling season.
The Blue Streaks saw an 18-point lead slip away in the second half but rebounded to defeat Thursday night’s visit to North Hunterdon 54-47 in the Skyland Conference Valley Division.
Junior Blessing Ekwuzi scored six straight points to give Warren Hills a 37-19 lead with 5:17 remaining in the third quarter.
The Lions (3-4) were close to being blown out and responded with a 19-2 run. Senior Tommy Mazurkiewicz hit a 3-pointer from the corner, and junior James DelSantro drove to the basket and scored to reduce North Hunterdon’s deficit to one, 39-38, with a 6:14 left in the fourth quarter.
DelSantro attacked the hoop again to level the score at 43-43 with 3:03 on the clock.
“The escape happened and everyone panicked. I panicked too,” Ekwuzi said. “But we persevered and stuck to the plan.”
Ekwuzi made two free throws. Then the junior guard followed up with a steal and layup to give the Streaks a 47-43 lead.
“We talk about this all season: resilience,” Warren Hills coach Joey Bamford said. “It’s a running game. This is a very good team. We knew they would come out in the second half and put on a run.
Junior guard TJ Kachala converted two 1-1 chances and senior forward Tommy Flaherty sunk two more foul shots to give Warren Hills the win (3-3).
The Streaks were 11 of 12 from the charity streak in the fourth quarter. Ekwuzi attributed the team’s success to a practice drill where missed foul shots resulted in sprints.
“I think it’s our coach. He always tells us to relax when we take our free throws,” Ekwuzi added. “We take free throws very seriously.”
After his furious rally, North Hunterdon scored just one field goal in the last 3 minutes – a last-second 3-pointer when the game was decided.
“We just put ourselves in a really bad position,” said Lions coach Kyle Rehrig. “We put a lot of pressure on; we have extended. We got back into the game but we also exhausted ourselves.”
The Streaks have experience with powerful finishes this winter. They gave up a buzzer-beater in a 42-40 season-opener loss at Somerville. They also saw a 10-point lead dwindle in the closing minutes against Roxbury during the Newton Holiday Tournament final, but rebounded to triumph 56-54 in overtime.
“It’s encouraging,” Ekwuzi said of Thursday’s result. “I remember last year there were a couple of close games and we lost them. This year we will come differently.”
DelSantro hit a 3-pointer to open the game and provided North Hunterdon with his only lead. The Lions then went scoreless for 6 minutes and 55 seconds as the Streaks built a 15-3 lead (courtesy of a 3 from Dean Schaefer sophomore).
North was 1 of 13 out of the field in the opening quarter. Ekwuzi applauded his team’s “annoying,” Patrick Beverley-like defense for calling the shots early.
“I thought our guards up front did a great job of keeping the pressure up,” Bamford said.
The Lions were more offensive in the second period, but were trailing 31-17 at the break.
“We know they are a team that likes to attack the paint and we let them do that. We gave some of their shooters an open look,” said Rehrig. “Offensively we just turned the ball too much, made rushed shots, needed some 3 seconds when we wanted to attack and go downhill.”
After a lopsided loss to Bound Brook on Tuesday, Rehrig believes North has arrived at a pivotal point in his season.
“We have three tough games ahead of us on Saturday (Hamilton West), Tuesday (Pingry) and Thursday (Voorhees). We just have to fix the ship and get better,” said the coach. “We leave nothing and nobody. But we’ve gotten to a point where we have to start making some tough decisions to see what kind of team we are and what our identity is.”
DelSanto went north with 13 points (5 of 9 shooting). Mazurkiewicz added 10 points and five rebounds.
Warren Hills is on a seven-game losing streak against the Lions. Before Thursday, their last win against North was on February 24, 2016.
Ekwuzi had a team-high 19 points with six rebounds. Junior Jayden Aziz had nine points and eight boards; and Flaherty contributed 12 points for the Streaks, who had 10 combined steals.
Warren Hills travels to the Delaware Valley on Saturday, where Bamford hopes to see his team face off against the Lions.
“They just have to have the understanding and belief in themselves that they are capable of putting in a performance like we saw tonight where we’re on the winning side,” he said.
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Kyle Craig can be reached at [email protected].