East Rutherford was in total control Saturday afternoon in its Western Region semifinal against North Rowan at UNC Greensboro’s Fleming Gym. The Cavaliers in red and black scored the first points of the game and led the entire way until 22 seconds remaining in the game when a Mike Bowman floater gave North Rowan its first lead of the game, 56-55.
North Rowan, the No. 7 seed out of the West, added two more points and East Rutherford, the No. 11 seed, missed two 3-point attempts in the final possession of the game as the buzzer sounded and sent North Rowan to Sunday’s Western Region final against Smoky Mountain with a 58-55 win.
“We just always believe that we have a chance,” North Rowan head coach Andrew Mitchell said. “It’s better to lead late than never. Sometimes you go up by 15 or 16 points and end up losing, so I’d rather have what just happened.”
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“This was about as hard of a basketball as you can possibly play, and I think the fans probably enjoyed every minute of it - both sides,” East Rutherford head coach Brad LeVine said. “Hats off to North Rowan.”
The East Rutherford defense pestered North Rowan and held them to just six points in the first quarter to take a 12-6 lead into the second quarter.
“We just always try to defend hard. We didn’t do anything special,” LeVine said.
“They were doing a good job of defending us,” Mitchell said. “And not having practice for two days just put us out of rhythm.
“Coming in Thursday ready to play and then getting turned around, we just weren’t mentally ready.”
East Rutherford (21-6) stretched its lead to 20-9 with just over four minutes in the first half after sophomore Calvin Camp scored his sixth and seventh points of the half.
North Rowan (20-5) responded with a 9-0 run before a Trey Dawkins dunk broke the dry spell for East Rutherford with 2:22 left in the second quarter.
The North Rowan offense stumbled the rest of the half and trailed East Rutherford, 26-19, at the break.
Camp stayed hot and buried a 3 to open the second half. However, North Rowan’s Michael Connor Jr. converted a three-point play just moments later to kick start a 22-point second half for the 6-foot-2 senior guard and put North Rowan back within seven points.
Connor Jr. scored 12 points (including three 3-pointers) in the period, but timely offensive rebounds and putbacks by Devonte Boykins kept the visiting Cavaliers ahead going into the fourth quarter, 40-37.
Travis Waldroup-Rodriguez opened the final frame with five of his 12 points in the first minute of the quarter.
Connor Jr. stayed hot and drained another 3 with just under four minutes left in the game to put North Rowan back within three points, 51-48.
Two Conner Jr. free throws later, North Rowan was down just one, 51-50, with 2:45 left in the contest.
East Rutherford responded with a mid-range jumper by Kaleb McEntyre, but McEntyre fouled out on the ensuing North Rowan possession on a Connor Jr. drive. Connor Jr. converted the layup but missed the three-point opportunity leaving East Rutherford ahead, 53-52.
Camp made a pair of free throws to stretch the lead back to three but a putback by Kenyon Tatum trimmed the East Rutherford lead back to a single point, 55-54.
North Rowan turned the ball over on the ensuing possession and sent Waldroup-Rodriguez to the free throw line with 36 seconds left for a one-and-one opportunity. He missed the front end of the one-and-one and North Rowan came down with the rebound.
“I can’t tell you how many games I’ve went to the free throw line up by one or down by one and buried both shots without even breathing hard,” Waldroup-Rodriguez said. “I went up to the free throw line and went through the same rhythm I’ve gone through since I was 4. It came off my hand and I thought it was good but it went long.”
With 22 seconds left, Bowman dropped a floater through the net to put North Rowan up 56-55.
“I came down the floor and everybody just went to the baseline,” Bowman said about the play. “Once I saw that I just told myself that big time players step up.”
Waldroup-Rodriguez turned the ball over after the inbound when Jalen Sanders intercepted a pass intended for Boykins. Sanders converted an easy transition layup for a three-point North Rowan lead with 10 seconds left.
“I saw (Waldroup-Rodriguez) come down the court and he was out of control,” Sanders said. “I knew he was trying to get the ball back into (Boykins’) hands so I just jumped in front of it.”
“I saw (Boykins) flash down and I knew I had to get rid of it before they trapped me so I threw it and just didn’t see the kid coming,” Waldroup-Rodriguez said.
Boykins managed to get off a 3-point try with about five seconds left but it went long. East Rutherford corralled the rebound and Dawkins had an open look from 3 but couldn’t convert as time expired.
After missing a costly free throw and committing the final turnover of the game, Waldroup-Rodriguez wanted the ball in his hands at the end of the game with a chance to tie it and erase the memory of those miscues.
“My whole basketball career I’ve wanted the ball. I want the last shot, to be on the free throw line and to bring the ball up the court. I’ve always wanted it to be me. It’s not a selfish outlook on the game, I just feel like I have the best chance to put the ball in the basket when it comes down to it,” he said. “I know it’s unfair to say that I’m the reason to blame for the game, but honestly that’s how I feel at the moment.”
Connor Jr. scored all of 22 game-high points in the second half while Sanders and Bowman finished with 16 and 11, respectively.
Boykins led East Rutherford with 18 points while Waldroup-Rodriguez and Camp each scored 12.
Both teams struggled from the charity stripe as East Rutherford shot just 55.6 percent for the game and North Rowan finished at 44.8 percent.
“The free throw situation hurt us,” LeVine said. “It’s the real little things that we came up short on. That to me was the difference in the ballgame.”
East Rutherford finishes the season 21-6 and will lose five players off of this year’s team, including Waldroup-Rodriguez and Boykins.
“Sure, wins and loses hurt. I’ve been here five or six times and it’s hard to get here,” LeVine said. “But it hurts to lose pieces like that to a program. I really hate losing these kids.”
“I just can’t believe it’s really over,” Boykins said. “I’m proud of this team and I hope the young boys take this as a learning experience and come back next year.”
The loss ends a trip that lasted an extra two days after snow, ice and power outages pushed the game from Thursday night to Saturday morning.
“It just didn’t end up the way we wanted it after about three days of havoc,” LeVine said. “We were here for one reason and that was to win today, win (Sunday) and win a state championship, so it hurts.”
NCHSAA Western Region Semifinal
At UNC Greensboro - Fleming Gym
March 7, 2014
NORTH ROWAN 58, EAST RUTHERFORD 55
NRHS^6^13^18^21 -- 58
ERHS^12^14^14^15 -- 55
NORTH ROWAN (58)
Michael Connor Jr. 22, Jalen Sanders 16, Mike Bowman 11, Tatum 6, Handy 3.
EAST RUTHERFORD (55)
Devonte Boykins 18, Travis Waldroup-Rodriguez 12, Calvin Camp 12, Jackson 5, McEntyre 4, Dawkins 4.