There was a time many years ago when the Lakewood boys basketball team was among the elite programs in the Shore Conference.
The Piners have risen to that position once again over the last few seasons and with a long-awaited Shore Conference Tournament crown now within sight, they are one win away from getting back to the top of the mountain.
Senior guard Tyrice Beverette scored 12 of his team-high 19 points in the first half, Jared Craddox added 12 and the top-seeded Piners controlled the boards, survived a bevy of turnovers and made enough plays against fifth-seeded Toms River North’s 1-3-1 zone in the second half to come away with a 55-47 win at Robert J. Collins Arena on the campus of Brookdale Community College on Wednesday evening.
With the win, Lakewood is through to Saturday’s Shore Conference final against No. 2 Point Beach, a 50-47 win over No. 3 seed Manasquan in Wednesday’s other semifinal. Game time on Saturday is set for 3 p.m. at Monmouth University. The final will be a rematch of a 55-47 Lakewood win back on Feb. 2.
Saturday will mark the third all-Ocean County SCT final and the first since Lakewood beat Lacey in 1991. That also stands as the last time the Piners won the event, while they are through to the SCT final for the first time since 1995. Toms River North was bidding for its first trip to the SCT final since 1996.
“Hopefully, we can go out Saturday, put a good performance on and win,” said Lakewood head coach Randy Holmes, who was a guard on that 1991 SCT winner. “If we don’t, we made our mark this year and hopefully, moving forward, Lakewood will come back on top.”
The third quarter proved to be the difference as Craddox scored six points and was all over the offensive glass. On consecutive possessions, he converted on second chances to give the Piners a 33-23 lead at one point. Ben Watson’s drop step in traffic in the closing seconds of the period gave Lakewood a 35-26 lead going to the fourth quarter.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Lakewood went to a four corners offense in an attempt to pull Toms River North out of the 1-3-1 zone. As the Piners looked to bleed the clock, the Mariners showed more pressure out top as the ball crossed mid-court.
Two free throws from Solly Stansbury capped an 8-0 run with 4:29 to go in the game to pull Toms River North within three at 37-34, but the Mariners would get no closer.
A Ben Watson layup following Stansbury’s two free throws pushed the lead to five before both teams traded turnovers. Lakewood went 14-for-19 from the foul line over the final 2:36 to salt the game away.
“We would’ve been fools to force shots (against the zone),” Beverette said. “Let them come out, we’ll soften the zone up and attack. It worked to our favor and you have to make foul shots at the end.”
A back-and-forth opening quarter gave way to Lakewood (21-1) finding some separation thanks to a 7-0 to open the second quarter that gave it a 19-13 lead with 6:30 to play. Malik Mendez opened that run with back-to-back layups in transition and after Toms River North’s Kyle Carrington missed two free throws, Beverette, who will play football for Stony Brook in the fall, hit his third 3-pointer of the game from the right wing to cap the run.
The Mariners (22-3) cut the deficit to one, but Beverette and Mendez hit back-to-back treys inside to push it back to a 25-18 lead before the Piners took a 25-20 lead into the locker room.
Mendez, a 5-foot-11 senior guard, scored all seven of his points in that second quarter.