BRANCHBURG, NJ–There is something about college hoop games involving the Lions of Raritan Valley. Over the past year, GMC Hoops has seen RVCC three times with all three games being decided in the final minute of play. Unfortunately, the last two have not gone favorably for the Lions. Essex County College opened up the second half with a 13-2 tear to take a 20 point lead, but RVCC rallied with a 35-14 surge over the next 12 minutes or so to take a one point lead with 3:30 to go. Piscataway's Omar Smith played a huge part in the rally by making a number of tough shots as well as getting to the line. Despite Smith's heroics though, Essex County was able to pull out a hard fought, 70-67 win.
Out of the final 22:48 of the contest, Raritan Valley only held the lead for 2:16. It was the second time, GMC Hoops saw the Lions in action. Earlier this season, the site saw Raritan Valley in acton against Middlesex County College in quite a game won by the Colts at MCC. Last year, RVCC rallied from a seemingly insurmountable deficit in the final minute of play to pull out a victory over Lackawanna Community College. Raritan Valley has several former GMC players on the roster including Antoine Beverly and Omar Smith of Piscataway and Mike Lester of Middlesex.
Meanwhile, Essex County College is coached by former P-Way standout and Middlesex County College head coach, Corey Lowery. After taking a year off, Lowery returned to the sideline on the JUCO level by taking the head coaching job at Essex C.C. this past spring. While at Middlesex, Lowery took the program to the NJCAA Division III Elite Eight after winning the Region XIX Championship several years ago. The Colts also reached the Region XIX final the year before. Prior to coaching at MCC, Lowery was an assistant coach at Division II Bloomfield College, and was the head coach at Hillside High School. Assisting Lowery on the coaching staff at Essex C.C. is former MCC and Hillside standout, Hensley Charles, who went on to play at West Virginia State.
Also in attendance for the game was P-Way assistant coaches, Jayson Reid and Jeff Adkins. Both coached Smith and Beverly when they played at P-Way a few years ago. The site joined the action with 2:48 to go in the first half and Essex County College leading by the score of 32-23. Using the foul line to their advantage in the first half, the Lions were able to keep the deficit down to single digits. Essex C.C. was able to hit a three pointer from the left corner at the 2:18 mark, bank in a shot after a nice nifty dribble move, and score another basket to lead 39-30 at the intermission.
Essex County College continued its prowess from three to start the second half. The visitors netted a three from the left wing at the 19:18 mark, another trey from the left corner at the 18:35 mark, and then banked in a triple from the top of the key at the 18:03 mark for a 48-32 lead. The only points for Raritan Valley during the 9-2 spurt by Essex to open the second half were two free throws by Smith at the 18:52 mark to narrow the deficit to 42-32. Following a timeout by the Lions, Essex County went right back to work with a nicely executed fast break for a layup, and a 50-32 lead.
The Lions had a chance to get back on the board after Essex C.C. called a timeout at the 16:24 mark. Smith drew a foul, but failed to connect on two both free throws. Essex then got another score for a 52-32 lead before Raritan Valley rallied with six straight points including a drive through the paint by Smith for a layup that closed the gap to 52-38 as RVCC called for time with 13:51 left. After the stoppage, the Lions converted a three point play to pull within eleven at 52-41, and following a pair of free throws by Essex C.C., Smith netted two foul shots of his own, and added a score off a follow to pull RVCC to within single digits with a little more than eleven minutes remaining. In just about four minutes, the Lions had cut into the deficit by more than half with Essex County College leading 54-45.
Over the next two and a half minutes, E.C.C. tried to pull away. After getting a free throw for a ten point lead, the visitors cashed in on an offensive rebound with a follow for a 57-45 lead. Following another Lions free throw, Essex got two more points for a 59-46 lead as it called for time with 8:46 remaining. After the timeout, RVCC got two as Immaculata alum, Emmitt Hightower scored inside to draw within eleven again. The bucket sparked a 10-5 run that was also highlighted by a three point play by Smith, and then a kickout by Smith to the right wing for a three pointer at the 5:10 mark for a 64-56 ECC lead.
RVCC began using its pressure defense to force turnovers and mayhem, and Smith added two more baskets to narrow the margin to 64-60 with 4:20 left. It was the closest that the Lions had been since the first half. Raritan Valley made two more free throws to draw within two, and then after a transition basket by Essex gave it a 66-62 lead, the Lions got a conventional three point play to pull within one with 3:57 left. Then, after getting a stop on defense, RVCC took the lead for the first time at 67-66 at the 3:30 mark. The Lions then had a chance to put the game away.
After calling timeout with 2:14 to go, the Lions had the ball, but were unable to score. Essex then drew a foul, and made one of two from the line to tie the game at 67-67 with 1:38 left. Both teams then had opportunities to go ahead, but turned the ball over. Essex committed a backcourt violation with 1:14 remaining, but Raritan Valley returned the favor by losing the ball out of bounds with 48.7 seconds left. Essex C.C. then set up for a go ahead score, and took a 69-67 lead on a putback with 11.8 seconds remaining. The visitors then made one of two from the line, and made things difficult for the Lions to connect from three as time ran out for the 70-67 victory.
Raritan Valley closed out the game with 35-18 surge with Smith scoring 17 of those points, but the Lions failed to score a point in the final 3:30 of the contest. Video highlights from this contest will be posted soon.