By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
LINWOOD — Throughout the first half and into halftime on Tuesday night, it seemed like everybody was getting on Mawali Osunniyi’s case about the defensive job he was doing on Lower Cape May forward Jacob Bey. Mainland coach Dan Williams was in his ear, so was every assistant coach, guys at the end of the bench, people in the stands — heck, people at the snack stand were probably shaking their head and scowling at the way things unfolded for the hometown Mustangs.
Bey seemed like he was on track for a spectacular night as he scored nine first half points, grabbed a bunch of rebounds and was a bully in the paint for the first 16 minutes while leading the Caper Tigers to a 24-18 lead at the break. Mainland was without star forward Jamie Tyson due to illness, so the onus fell on Osunniyi’s shoulders to get the job done — and he wasn’t in the first half.
“I heard from literally everybody, even people on the bench. They were like, ‘come on, man, you’ve got to pick this up. There’s no energy in you at all.’ That’s what I bring to the team, that energy,” said the 6-foot-4 senior. “They recognized that I was down and they were like, ‘come on!’ Even people at the end of the bench, even people in the stands were like, ‘yo, where is your energy at?’ And it just snapped (into place) after that first bucket (in the second half) by Cohen (Cook), and it sparked up from there. We went on a run and shut them down from there.”
Shutting them down is an understatement. Osunniyi and the Mainland defense held Lower Cape May without a point for nearly 14 minutes to start the second half, and the Stangs turned a six-point halftime deficit into a 32-24 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The Bunting Family Pharmacy Game of the Week was all Mainland in the second half, as the Stangs went on to win, 42-31, and capture the Cape-Atlantic League United Conference title while improving to 17-2.
“In the second half Mawali responded well,” Williams said. “All the coaches got into him a little bit. We said, ‘hey, Bey supposedly was hurt last night and he’s kicking your butt. If you want to move on to the next level you have to prove otherwise.’”
Osunniyi certainly proved himself up to the challenge, as he held Bey scoreless in the second half, along with some solid help from teammate Shawn Williamson.
“Coach told me, ‘you have to be the one who steps up tonight.’ Me and Jamie bring the energy, but he wasn’t here tonight so I had to bring it all,” Osunniyi said. “I told Shawn, ‘you have a big role tonight, so let’s step up tonight and get into it.’ And he played his role. I’m really proud of him.”
Mainland (17-2, 11-0 Cape-Atlantic League United) got off to a slow start but rallied to lead 10-5 after the first quarter, but in the second quarter the Caper Tigers’ offense came to life. Lower went on a 9-0 run to start the frame and take a 14-10 lead, then got a driving layup from Ty Bonner to take an 18-13 lead later in the quarter. A steal and layup by Ty’s older brother, Mackey, pushed Lower’s lead to 22-13.
“We thought we did a pretty good job on Mackey Bonner in the first. I think he had six points in the first half, but I don’t think the rest of our supporting cast was doing a great job, especially on the big kid, Bey,” Williams said. “We had to lay into our bigs a little bit. He was catching it too deep. I think he had nine points in the first half.”
The Bonner brother and Bey combined for all of Lower’s 24 first-half points in the absence of star Archie Lawler, who is out with an injury. But in the second half Mainland’s defense clamped down on those three, as only Mackey Bonner scored in the final two frames, and he was limited to just five points as the Stangs outscored the Caper Tigers 24-7 after halftime.
“I felt like we were playing great defense, we were playing tough, and like our coach says, he likes when our backs are up against the wall, that brings out the dog in us,” Osunniyi said. “I saw we were playing great defense and it sparked me out of nowhere. We got tougher. Our coaches said we had to shut them down if we want to get back and really shut this game off. We had to stop Bey because he was playing tremendously, so we really had to stop him. (Coach Williams) said I had to come out higher on the high-ball screens. And I had great help defense by our other senior forward, Shawn (Williamson) — as I would take over the high ball screens he would come in and stuff the paint. It was a great effort by him, we had a lot of help defense.”
Typically, Mainland, in a tough defensive game like this, would lean on Cohen Cook for points, but the Tigers did a nice job of taking him out of the equation. Cook finished with just six points, but the Stangs made up for it with guys like Rocco DiBiaso, Keaton Loewenstern and Williamson combining for 18 points. Osunniyi finished with seven points and Tim Travagline led the way with 11 points, including a pair of 3-pointers. Mackey Bonner led Lower (16-4, 8-3 CAL United) with 11 points while Ty Bonner and Bey each had nine.
“I would characterize it as not a typical game by Cohen — not a bad game because he had his hands in on a lot of plays, had a bunch of boards — and without Tyson he had to play a lot more on the interior,” Williams said. “But Lowenstern came in and did a nice job defensively, hit a three for us, and Williamson came in and scored some late buckets that really busted it open.
Mainland has three more regular-season games remaining and should be in the mix for the No. 1 seed in the upcoming Cape-Atlantic League Tournament along with teams like St. Augustine Prep, Millville and Egg Harbor Township.
What’s Next: Mainland hosts Cape May Tech on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. Lower Cape May hosts Absegami on Thursday at 7 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays