by Andrew Garda

MILLBURN — The Montclair High School boys basketball team played a good first half, keeping pace with a disciplined Millburn team, but stumbled badly in the second half, losing 55-39.

The two halves couldn’t have been more different.

In the first, the Mounties played a tight, controlled defense, overcoming several runs by the Millers, and trailing by just 5 points at the half, 26-21. The defense moved very well, shifting with the ball as Millburn tried to find an open man, then converting rebounds and steals into points at the other end.

When Charles Murphy Jr. grabbed a rebound, moved up court and found Deshawn Davis for a bucket at the buzzer, the momentum seemed to have settled on Montclair’s side of the court.

But something shifted at halftime for both teams.

The Millers, a team well coached by Rodger Blind — who notched his 300th victory on Saturday — settled down at both ends.

Defensively, they were effective at disrupting the Mounties’ passing, while on the offensive side they hammered the glass and came away with a lot of second chances that were converted to points.

Meanwhile, Montclair seemed to stop playing as a cohesive unit. The ball didn’t move well between players, plays seemed to be disjointed and coaching direction from the bench wasn’t translating to action on the court.

All in all, the third period was about as big a disaster as one could imagine, with MHS getting outscored, 13-3.

“Our struggle all year has been our focus on details,” coach Gary Wallace said after the loss. “In the last two days, we went over everything Millburn runs. From the high ball screens to the back doors. I tell these guys, you have to be detailed, you have to be focused and locked in at all times.”

Wallace warned them the game would be a 32-minute mental battle, and that their focus would be tested.

“You’re going to think you can do anything you want to, but you can’t,” he had told his team. “They’re too solid defensively, they’re not going to pressure you, so you guys have the mental toughness and run through your sets and when opportunity presents itself, find the open spot.”

For the most part, Montclair was never able to do that. While Tarrin Earle (12 points) and Gabe Schreiber (15 points) found the basket, many of their teammates couldn’t, with normally prolific point guard Zion Wyatt held to just 4 points while Charles Murphy Jr. was shut out completely.

MHS' Charles Murphy Jr gets ready to play some defense against Millburn during Montclair's 55-39 loss in the Essex County Tournament.
MHS' Charles Murphy Jr gets ready to play some defense against Millburn during Montclair's 55-39 loss in the Essex County Tournament.

Montclair was able to right the ship a little bit in the fourth quarter, but the hole they had dug proved to be too big to climb out of.

That’s been an all too common storyline for this team much of the season — hang close, but fade late, missing out on a win they could have had.

“If you look back at all our games,” Wallace said, “we’ve been in every game. It’s just that once we start making mental lapses, then it’s like we lose our minds and now we try to play hero ball. And we don’t have that talent to play hero ball.”

Wallace now has to find a way to get his guys to focus before they travel to take on No. 2 seed Hackensack in the first round of the NJSIAA North 1, Group 4 Tournament. The game will tip off at 7 p.m. on until Feb. 27.