By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
ABSECON — Hammonton High had a pretty good year last year, winning 11 games, and the Blue Devils showed some flashes of outstanding play, like scoring a win over eventual Cape-Atlantic League champion Mainland and taking down a talented St. Joseph Academy team 43-41 in early February.
But this year, there seems to be an air of confidence around the Blue Devils, who have gotten off to a solid 5-2 start. The latest victory came Saturday afternoon at the Seagull Classic at Holy Spirit High School, where Hammonton fended off a tough challenge from Haddonfield to win its second straight game and third in its last four.
Point guard Kenny Smith — still just a sophomore — took over the game in the fourth quarter, scoring seven straight points after Haddonfield had rallied for a 28-27 advantage on a free throw from Nate Rohlfing. Smith nailed a 3-pointer that gave Hammonton a 30-28 lead and the Blue Devils never trailed again. He followed that up with two layups in transition, and a few minutes later Ta’vonne Barber drilled a three that pushed Hammonton’s lead out to 39-30.
After going down 28-27, Hammonton (5-2, 2-0 Cape-Atlantic League American) outscored the Bulldogs 18-9 down the stretch to pull out a 45-37 victory. Haddonfield managed to cut the deficit to 43-37 with 19 seconds left after a big three from Teddy Bond, but the Blue Devils hit a couple of free throws in the final seconds to secure the win.
“We’ve been playing great. We’re playing as a team, and that’s the most important thing. We’re just coming together and I think we’re going to have a really good season,” said Hammonton senior guard Tyler Lowe. “I think (the low scoring first quarter) was just two good defensive teams going at it. We got to (Hammonton High) around 10 a.m., did some shooting and a bit of a walk-through, and once we got onto the bus I could tell we were locked in and ready to go.”
The game got off to a snail’s pace as Hammonton led just 7-2 after the first quarter, and the Blue Devils took a 17-11 lead into halftime. Midway through the second half the Blue Devils extended their lead to 25-15 on a traditional 3-point play from Smith, but Haddonfield (6-3, 4-1 Colonial Liberty) kept chipping away, getting a pair of 3-pointers from Sam Narducci and an inside bucket from Rohlfing to eventually tie the game at 27.
“They came back — we had that game against Ocean City where we hit a three with eight seconds left then they hit a half-court shot (to tie the game) and we just looked at each other and said, ‘four more minutes, let’s go.’ And No. 3 (Kenny Smith) stepped up,” said Hammonton assistant coach Christian Mortellite. “No. 3 is a little bit different. He didn’t shoot the ball well, but we went down by one and No. 3 hits a shot and we go up and that feeds into the rest of our guys. Once he made that shot our guys knew we were going to close it out.”
“We knew we had to get some stops on defense — that’s the first thing our coaches said. So we came out and got some stops. I knew we had to make something happen in the fourth quarter. We had to do a lot of talking on their screens, and Bryce and the other bigs stepped up on defense,” said Smith, who also is an all-state running back during the football season. “This is a statement win, for sure. We can play with anybody, anywhere. That’s the statement we’re trying to make.”
Smith was a big difference maker for the Blue Devils, as he finished with a game-high 18 points to go along with three rebounds and only two turnovers in a full 32 minutes.
“This is my second year playing with him and he’s the best player I’ve ever played with. I think he’s the best player in the CAL,” Lowe said.
“He’s a football player, but when he’s on the court he’s our point guard and he makes everyone better,” Mortellite said. “He defends, he’s scratching for rebounds, he makes good passes and he can score the ball at a very good level. He keeps shooting the ball a little bit better each day. His foul shooting down the stretch was good, and that’s what wins games.
“Guys like Kenny and Tyler, last year was their first time ever playing together and they ran the backcourt for us all year. This year they are just a little bit more comfortable, a little bit quicker, a little bit stronger — and they are more confident,” Mortellite added. “I’ve been playing basketball for a long time, and a lot of basketball is confidence. A lot of shooting is confidence, a lot of playmaking is confidence. Being confident in your teammates, being confident in yourself, being confident in your coaches — that’s what these kids are doing. It’s a very tight group.”
Hammonton also got a big lift from forward Bryce Nicholson, who scored 10 points and had seven rebounds, an assist and a steal.
“Bryce stepped up and played a great game, but really everyone chipped in and did their part,” Lowe said. “We made clutch shots and hit most of our free throws, and took care of the ball.”
“We have tough kids and they are bought in together. They’ll do whatever we need to do. If we have to play a game in the 60s, alright, let’s score the ball and find a way to win. If we have to play a game in the 30s or 40s, that’s not our style — I’m a 3-point guy and I love to shoot, shoot, shoot — but these guys want to grind it out and win,” Mortellite said. “Hat’s off to them, that locker room is tight. They don’t care who scores, they don’t care who plays. Joe (Gillen) had been playing big minutes for us at center earlier in the year and gave us a lot of energy. Tonight was Bryce’s night and (Joe) was the first guy off the bench saying, ‘let’s go!’ When you see that stuff as a coach you know your team is coming together.”
Hammonton now turns its attention to a slew of Cape-Atlantic League games, including four straight road games beginning Jan. 11 at Bridgeton.
Lowe said he’s confident the Blue Devils can keep their winning ways going. “I think we’re just closer than we were last year. Last year we were close, but we’re even closer this year. We have a much better bond and everyone is just playing together, and if we can keep doing that we’re going to have a great season.”
What’s Next: Hammonton hosts Millville on Monday at 5:30 p.m. Haddonfield travels to Lindenwold on Monday at 7 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays