Nottingham’s Richie Jones scores on a layup in the MCT Semi-Finals against Ewing High School. Jones finished with 20 points and set the school record for 3 pointers. Photo by Michael A. Sabo
By Rich Fisher
Feb. 20:Ewing was grinding away, doing everything it could to stay close.
And it was working.
Until it wasn’t.
With top-seeded Nottingham clinging to a 30-29 lead, the Northstars suddenly found the spurt they needed, running off eight straight in the final two minutes of the first half to spark a 69-63 win over the 5th-seeded Blue Devils in tonight’s boys’ basketball semifinals of the Mercer County Tournament.
The victory sends the Northstars (22-2) back to the Cure Insurance Arena for Thursday’s 7:30 p.m. final against Trenton Catholic, which is the same school Nottingham played in its only other MCT finals appearance in 1987.
The Iron Mikes were known as McCorristin back then, and John Castaldo’s squad took a 68-47 victory over Pete “Doctor Dutch” Leonard’s Northstars. According to Nottingham historian Rick “The Voice” Taylor, it was the final MCT crown won by McCorristin before the school name changed to Trenton Catholic.
“This means a lot,” said guard Richie Jones, who set the school record for 3-pointers in a season in the first quarter. “I’m really glad we got to accomplish this.”
“Ever since my freshman year I wanted to come here,” added Cliff Joseph, who matched Jones’ output with 20 points. “It was a dream, and now we’re going to the championship game, so it’s special.”
Nottingham reached the semifinals last year before losing to TCA, and used that as impetus for the senior-laden squad to go further this year.
“We were hungry, it made us hungry,” Joseph said. “We wanted to come here again and instead of just being here we wanted to win. And we’re used to playing here now.”
“We were here last year so we knew what to expect,” Jones added. “Last year we were just glad to be here and we played like that. This year, we really wanted to win.”
They were up a against a Blue Devil squad that only lost by four to Nottingham one week ago. In a back-and-forth first half, the game was tied at 27-27 before Jones hit a 3-pointer. Shemar Robinson answered with a bucket to make it 30-29 before Nottingham went to work.
Two straight buckets by the whirling dervish that is Kostro Montina, was followed by hoops from Darell Johnson and Joseph to push the lead to nine points at intermission. Ewing tried to battle back late in the game, but the Northstars were not about to let it slip away.
“We had a lot of confidence (at halftime),” Joseph said. “We had to come back out with the same intensity we came with the last two minutes of the second quarter. We just had to protect the ball. We didn’t have to shoot anymore, we just had to protect ball.”
Johnson finished with 17 points while Montina had 10 points and 10 rebounds while setting an intense tone for the Northstars during their late first-half run. Jones helped get things started by hitting his first five shots en route to 14 first-half points.
“That’s big for us,” Joseph said. “That opens it up for a lot of people.”
Asked how the team is able to stay calm in such a big-time atmosphere, Jones said, “It’s hard, but we try to get the jitters out in practice.”
Those jitters will be ramped up a bit in the championship game against a TCA team that topped Trenton, 69-58, and has won four of the last six MCT titles.
“We’re just gonna come out and play the way we play and try to come out with the win,” Joseph said. “We have to contain their shooters.”
And try to gain revenge for 31 years earlier.