by Andrew Garda
NEWARK—42 feet. That’s the distance between the baseline and half-court on an average sized high school basketball court.
During the 69-66 loss by Immaculate Conception High School’s boys basketball team to Newark East Side in the Essex County Tournament Championship on Saturday, February 23, it could be argued that measurement was also the difference between a win and a loss.
With just under five minutes left in regulation, IC had found themselves down 18 points. Senior Nick Jourdain had drawn a pair of fouls—including a technical—and fouled out of the game. Elijah Hutchins-Everett was in foul trouble, and been held to just 11 points. Zion Bethea had been relegated to scoring on free throws.
It looked bad for IC, and East Side was rolling.
Then slowly, surely, Immaculate pulled itself up off the ground and chipped away at the Raiders lead. First, Hutchins-Everett was fouled and made both free throws. Then Amar’e Marshall scored, and Hutchins-Everett drove to the basket for another bucket. The tall Lion sank one of two free throws a few moments later, and then after East Side’s Nasir Johnson sank a free throw, Hutchins-Everett crashed the lane, scored again and drew a foul.
East Side stopped making baskets from the floor and were relegated to adding drips and drops to their total via the charity stripe, while Immaculate kept piling up baskets, led by Hutchins-Everett.
Before fans of both teams had time to register it, East Side was calling a full timeout, their lead shrunk to 66-63 with 1:11 left in regulation.
The Raiders started playing keep-away, forcing the Lions to foul them and send them to the foul line in order to stop the clock and get the ball back. Johnson put two foul shots away, increasing the lead to 68-63, which Zekai Zeigler cut to 68-64 by making one of two free throws himself.
Then the Lions intercepted the inbound pass and Hutchins-Everett sank another basket, drawing Immaculate to within a 3-point shot of tying the game.
The Lions had to foul again with 4.8 seconds left on the clock. This time Johnson missed both shots and there was a mad scramble for the ball, which the Lions retrieved and appeared to advance before head coach Jimmy Salmon called a timeout with 1.4 seconds left.
And this is where the 42 feet comes in. Under the best of circumstances, it’s exceedingly difficult to sink a 3-point shot to tie a game like this. Salmon called a timeout for two reasons.
First to get a chance to set up a play and get his players the best chance possible to tie the game. And secondly, to advance the ball to half-court.
Coming out of the timeout, however, Salmon’s team found the official waiting for them with the ball—under their own basket.
“The way I saw it, the ball was fumbled in the lane, we took two dribbles out and then we called timeout,” Salmon explained. “[The officials] claimed that he stopped before the top of the key, which meant it hadn’t broken the circle and so we had to take it out at the baseline. That was their opinion, I disagree.”
The difference was 42 more feet the Lions had to advance the ball to get within 3-point range. It would have been tough to execute any sort of play with 1.4 seconds left from halfcourt.
From their own baseline? Virtually impossible.
After some cajoling by Salmon fell on deaf ears, Bethea took the ball at the baseline and tried to get it to Zeigler along the sideline. Zeigler’s shot was short, but that didn’t matter because the officials said his foot stepped out of bounds, and with .4 seconds left, East Side would get the ball back.
While it fell short, Immaculate’s effort during the last five minutes of regulation were impressive. They outscored East Side 25-10, led by Hutchins-Everett’s 14 points. Defensively, they held East Side to just one basket from the floor during that stretch, the rest of the Raiders’ points coming from free throws. They forced numerous turnovers, rallied on rebounds and avoided turning the ball over themselves.
Unfortunately, early mistakes came back to haunt them, while East Side’s accuracy from the floor gave the Raiders a good chance to build a lead.
“I thought [East Side] shot like 70 percent in the first half and then they came out in the third quarter and might have shot 80,” Salmon said. “It’s tough when that happens. And [East Side] was winning all the 50-50 balls. Those possessions matter and they came back to cost us.”
While the game didn’t end up the way Immaculate might have hoped, there were still some good things to take away.
Among the bright spots were Hutchins-Everett’s 25 points and his dominant play the last five minutes was the sort of performance which should have him on the radars of any collegiate basketball team. Bethea finished with 13 points and was deadly from the free throw line, and he was 9-of-10 on those shots. Bethea wasn’t the only effective Lion with free throws during the first half. Early on, the Lions were very sharp.
However, in the fourth quarter, IC’s free throw shooting went south. They opened with six straight missed free throws and while they went 7-for-9 to close the game out, those six missed shots loom large in a three-point loss like this.
Now the Lions have to put their disappointment aside and prepare for the NJSIAA Non-Public North B Tournament, which starts on Wednesday, February 27. IC is the No. 6-seeded team and hosts No. 11-seeded St. Mary (Rutherford), with tip-off scheduled for 7pm.