Following back-to-back losses, the Lions fell out of first place in the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) and limped into the conference tournament as the fourth seed.
The good news is they started the playoffs with a home game. However, last week, they let the momentum they built up in a seven-game win streak slip away and lost out on a bye in the first round, which the first-and second-seeded teams are awarded in the tournament.
“This league is such a marathon and maybe (the win streak) took a lot out of them,” head coach John Castaldo said of his team. “We know we can play at that level (of the best teams in the NJAC). We just hope we didn’t wear it out.”
The Lions came into the game against New Jersey City University in a three-way tie for second in the conference, but after an 80-65 loss against the Gothic Knights on Saturday, the Lions must be wondering what happened to the magic they played with during the seven-game winning streak that was snapped earlier in the week to Montclair State University.
“I’m totally disappointed,” senior forward Bobby Davison said. “It’s a positive to make the playoffs but a disappointment the way we’ve played these past two games.”
Ironically, on a day when emotions were high, with seven seniors honored prior to tip-off of the final regular season home game, the Lions did not play inspired basketball. “As a team, we were frustrated today,” senior forward Scott Findlay said. “They actually took us out of our game.”
The Knights caught fire early in the game and buried three-pointer after three-pointer, finishing eight for 16 from downtown in the first half. The Lions took the lead briefly after two energetic plays from Findlay and then senior guard Jason Stallworth. Findlay picked up a steal and finished the play with a one-handed dunk. Then after a Knights miss, Stallworth took a long rebound and went coast-to-coast to put the Lions up 20-19.
The Knights began to pull away late in the half, as their shots kept falling and finished on a 13-4 run to go ahead 40-31. Although the Lions opened the second half with a 7-0 run to get within two, that would be the closest they would come.
The Knights, led by senior forward Mark Washington, outplayed the Lions and treated this game as if it were the playoffs.
“It seemed like everything they shot went in,” Findlay said. “They’re a very good team.” The Knights finished the game with 13 three-pointers, while shooting 59 percent from downtown. The Lions also had difficulty matching up with the Knights’ athleticism. The Knights won the rebounding battle 44-33.
Findlay did what he could to keep the Lions in the game, putting up 22 points and 12 rebounds, but the Knights proved they were the better team on this day. Junior forward Devin Davis led the Knights’ torrid shooting effort with 17 points and four of five from three-point land.
Last Wednesday, the Lions had their seven-game winning streak snapped by the Red Hawks of Montclair State University in a 77-68 road loss. Led by senior forward Gian Paul Gonzalez, who was fourth in the country as of Feb. 12 with 27.4 points per game (ppg), the Hawks played like a team desperate to make the playoffs while the Lions did not have much motivation, having already clinched a playoff spot.
This was the second game the Lions dropped to the Hawks this season. “Matching up with Montclair is tough because they start three guys that are six-foot-six and above,” Findlay said. “They have some big bodies and rebound real well.”
The Lions also had trouble matching up with Gonzalez. Even though they held him under his season average with 21 points, they couldn’t stop him when it mattered most. Gonzalez took control of the game, scoring 19 of his 21 points in the second half.
In the first half, the Lions used double teams against Gonzalez and held him to just two points, but his teammates took advantage, knocking down six three-pointers.
The Lions tried to use single coverage on him in the second half, but Gonzalez got the better part of that defensive strategy. “Matching up with Gonzalez is always tough,” Findlay said. “He works real hard to get open and has good low post moves.”
The Lions finished the regular season at 17-8 with a conference record of 11-7 to grab the fourth seed in the NJAC Tournament. Their season was on the line last night when they hosted Rutgers University-Newark in the opening round of the conference tournament. Game results can be seen at tcnjathletics.com.