By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
HAMMONTON — When people say a team is young they often equate that description to meaning said team is inexperienced as well. Those words seem to be opposites — it’s hard to be experienced in anything when you are young, and if you’re not young, chances are you have built up a lot of experience in any number of situations.
John Bruno’s Ocean City boys basketball team is still young — he starts three juniors and a pair of sophomores — but it’s also much more experienced than it was just a few months ago at the start of the season. Twenty-two games may not seem like a lot in the grand scheme of a basketball career, but his players drew on the experience they’ve been gaining since December to score a 56-52 win over host Hammonton — a team they might just see in the first round of the South Jersey Group 3 playoffs — on Tuesday night.
Ocean City (11-12, 6-6 Cape-Atlantic League American) fought back from an early deficit, rallied to a big lead (then showed its youth by giving away that lead), and realized the final three minutes, and the end result, would likely come down to being able to handle the ball and hit free throws to seal a victory. The Red Raiders did just that, led by sophomore point guard Dylan Schlatter, who nailed 4-of-6 free throws down the stretch and forced Hammonton to foul him because of his ability to handle the ball in pressure situations.
“You just have to get the ball in, make sure you get fouled and don’t turn it over,” Schlatter said.
Ocean City trailed 16-8 after one quarter, but completely flipped the script in the second, outscoring Hammonton 16-8 in the second to go into halftime tied at 24. Erik Pabon nailed a 3-pointer to put Hammonton up 24-21 late in the second quarter but the Raiders responded with a three from Colin Randles with three seconds to go before halftime to make it 24-24. That gave Ocean City the confidence it needed to come out and get the lead in the second half and that’s exactly what the Red Raiders did, racing out to a 40-29 lead before the Blue Devils got back into the game in the final five minutes behind some big shots from freshman point guard Kenny Smith.
“What is interesting is we went into the game running our open offense and I told them, ‘it’s our guys against their guys.’ I thought we did a pretty good job in the first half and a better job in the second half. I thought we moved the ball very well (in the second half). When you get into the playoffs and you get into these games that matter, you have to be able to hold the ball sometimes for a minute or more,” Bruno said. “I thought the difference was Colin Randles coming into the game. I kick myself a little for not using him more in the second half because when he came in (during the first half) he hit a couple buckets, he had a 3-pointer, a reverse layup under the basket, and I thought that generated some offense.
“I thought getting the three to tie it after being down was big, because then it was 0-0 heading into the locker room,” coach Bruno added. “Young is really a weird term because we’re 20 games in. Experience is really the key word — what situations are you in during close games and how do you learn from that. I thought we did a good job of protecting the ball and not taking bad shots. Maybe earlier in the year we wouldn’t have been able to do that, and that’s where experience comes in. Being young is one thing, but do you learn from your experiences? I thought tonight really helped us learn offensively and defensively. I feel we go as well as Dylan Schlatter handles the ball. When he’s out there, we’re pretty good. This was one of those games where you just want the kids to play hard and play together, and I thought for the most part we did that.”
Ocean City led by 10, 48-38, with only 2:20 remaining, but Hammonton (10-10, 5-7 CAL United) made a frantic comeback attempt. Jason Hill nailed one of the Devils’ seven 3-pointers to get them within 48-41, and an inside bucket from Smith got Hammonton within 48-43 with 1:25 remaining. Hammonton closed the gap all the way to 53-50 on another driving layup from Smith with 38 seconds left, and the Devils got to within 54-52 with 24 seconds left on yet another basket by Smith. But Hammonton misfired on a 3-point attempt and Schlatter made a steal with 4.3 seconds to go. He hit 1-of-2 from the line to seal the four-point victory.
“We wanted to try to win the game without giving up too much (in case we play them in the playoffs). We started pressuring out further (to get back into the game), we brought our zone out higher and we just kind of adjusted to the way they were beating our zone,” Schlatter said. “We just have to get better every day, keep working in practice. I’m pretty sure we’ll play them in the first round of the playoffs, so we just have to be able to do the same thing when we play them again.”
Bruno warned his team about getting too confident, however, because by the time the playoffs roll around Hammonton will likely have star forward John Andoloro back.
“We gave up a lot of threes, but the other team still has to make them. They hit a couple late in the game that got them back into it. We just have a 3-ball magnet, against us the threes start dropping. Guys have career highs against us,” Bruno said. “We’ve been up-and-down, but I think the whole league has been up-and-down. Just when you think somebody is playing well there is a big loss out there. Like this game, this is no indication of how things are going to turn out in the playoffs.”
Hammonton had three players in double figures as Luciano Nistico led the way with 13, Pabon added 12 and Smith finished with 10 points. Ocean City was led by 14 from Schlatter, 11 from Omero Chevere and 10 from Kori Segich, who was playing with injured fingers on both hands.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays