By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — With a young roster that features only a couple of seniors, the Egg Harbor Township boys basketball team has had a rough go of things in the always tough Cape-Atlantic League American Conference and has played some tough nonconference opponents, such as Clearview and Haddonfield.
But the Eagles have been battling to stay in contention for a berth in the South Jersey Group 4 playoffs, and built some confidence on Tuesday night with a solid 55-48 win over an ACIT team that was riding a four-game winning streak and had won seven of its last nine.
EHT (7-11, 3-6 CAL American) got a huge boost from sophomore guard Carlos Lopez, a Williamstown transfer, as he scored a game-high 21 points that included a trifecta of 3-pointers, 11 points in each half and four free throws in the final 55 seconds to help seal the victory. He also scored perhaps the biggest basket of the night on a driving layup that gave the Eagles a 40-36 after ACIT (11-6, 4-5) had cut the deficit down to just two points at 38-36.
“That’s what Lopez does. I always tell Carlos he has the license to shoot when he shoots on the catch. When he shoots on the catch, it’s a beautiful thing. When he does a little too much, sometimes I tell him to pull it back out and we’ll come back and get it,” said EHT coach Cameron Bell. “Shooters shoot, to use that cliche. He has license to shoot and he shot it well tonight. People forget, he’s just a sophomore. Everybody saw what he did at Williamstown last year, but he’s still just a sophomore, he’s still learning and getting better. He’s such a coachable kid.”
“The first shot I took, I was off, so I just kept shooting. I had to get my rhythm,” Lopez said. “They started denying me (from the outside) in the second half, so I had to find another way to score and I went to the basket.”
Solid defense: The Eagles came out with intensity on the defensive end in the first half, jumping out to a 13-2 lead midway through the first quarter and limiting the normally high-scoring ACIT offense to just 10 points in the first frame. EHT extended its lead to 30-17 before the RedHawks scored the final five points of the first half, on a 3-pointer and then a buzzer-beating floater in the lane from Zaheer Owens.
EHT was also able to hold ACIT’s leading scorers, James Waugh and Nurridin Abdul-Rahmann, to a combined 12 points in the first half. Both players are on pace to score their 1,000th career point soon, perhaps sometime next week.
“Hats off to (ACIT coach Larry DiGiovanni), he’s a legend in coaching. I told those guys, (ACIT) is playing hard, they’ve been playing really well lately, and a team coached by D.G. is always going to play hard. I had my guys up. I said, ‘look, we’re at home, we’ve been struggling a little bit at home, let’s see if we can turn the tables tonight, and they responded,” Bell said. “The plan was to put our two best defenders on (Waugh and Abdul-Rahmann). Our two best defenders are the Germann brothers, James and Dean, so that was our plan all night, to guard them with those two. They did well, for the most part.”
Clutch in crunch time: One of the Eagles’ Achilles heels this season has been turnovers late in games and giving up leads in the fourth quarter, but against the RedHawks, EHT played under control and was able to burn nearly two minutes off the clock late in the game, forcing ACIT to have to come out and foul.
After the RedHawks cut the deficit to 38-36 early in the fourth, EHT responded with a 6-0 run and that was important, as the Eagles kept at least a four-point lead the rest of the way. EHT went 6-for-6 from the foul line in the final minute, and hit 9-of-10 from the line in the fourth quarter.
“We work on that all the time in practice. We do free throws every day after practice, we just have to work on late-game situations,” Lopez said.
What it means: The Eagles likely won’t make the CAL Tournament but can still qualify for sectionals, and coach Bell said he believes his team could be a difficult matchup for anybody in the state playoffs.
“What it does is, one, it shows us that our season isn’t over, even though it hasn’t been great. We’re probably not going to make the CALs, but we still have an outside shot to make the (South Jersey) Group 4 playoffs, even if it is as a No. 16 seed,” he said. “We want to keep getting better. Once you get in (to the playoffs) anything can happen and I really think we have a lot of talent, we just have to get better each and every day. These guys could have packed it in a couple games ago but they didn’t. They keep fighting for each other, they keep fighting for me. More than anything, it shows me we have a lot still in us.”
“This is a big win,” added Lopez, whose father — also named Carlos — played at EHT before graduating in 1996. “We know that if we play as a team we feel like we can beat anybody, so this is a great win for us.”
Stats: Waugh led the RedHawks with 16 points and added six rebounds and two assists, while Abdul-Rahmann and Owens each contributed 12 points. For EHT, Lopez led the way with 21 points, including three of the Eagles’ six 3-pointers, Ethan Dodd added 12 points and Isaiah Glenn and Isiah Walsh combined to score 13 points.
What’s next: EHT travels to Vineland on Thursday at 6 p.m. ACIT hosts St. Augustine Prep on Thursday at 7 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays