The Mount Olive boys basketball team’s dream season came to an end on Saturday with a 73-67 overtime loss to No. 2 Sparta in the North 1 Group III semifinals.
The third-seeded Marauders (23-6) end a season in which they won their first-ever Morris County Tournament title, set a school record for wins with 23 and won their first state tournament games in school history. The Spartans (25-4) will face the winner of No. 1 Teaneck and No. 5 Old Tappan in the sectional final on Tuesday. The last two years, Sparta lost to Teaneck in the semifinals.
“We were just saying this was supposed to be a rebuilding year, it really was,” Mount Olive coach Kevin Moore said. “To go this far and set a school record for wins, first county championship and having never been this far in the states, I think it’ll be a great springboard for us for next season. And I think the experience of playing in these big games I think will serve us very well next year.”
With 2 minutes 28 seconds left in regulation, the Marauders had a 60-57 lead, but Sparta scored five-straight points to take a 62-60 lead with 1:20 to play. Mount Olive junior center Zach Heeman tied the game 62-62 with a basket with 1:01 to go, and neither team could take the lead as time ran out.
The Spartans opened overtime on a 6-0 run, including a 3-pointer by senior guard Zach Frick, to take a 68-62 lead with 2:14 left. Mount Olive junior guard Rashaan Spencer hit a basket to get within four, 68-64, with 2:03 to go and Sparta gave the Marauders a chance to get back in the game when Kevin Foulds missed a pair of free throws.
Austin Unglaub made one-of-two free throws with 1:14 left to give Sparta a 69-64 lead, but Marauders sophomore guard Chris Grillo hit a 3-pointer 16 seconds later to cut the lead to 69-67. The Spartans then finished out the game by going to the line three times and making 4-of-6 free throws for the 73-67 final.
“It’s awesome, we’ve been to the semifinals the past three years and the two years before this we were not able to make it to the championship and finally we are, so it’s great, it’s a great feeling,” Frick said. “It’s awesome, I didn’t want to go home early being a senior. It’s an amazing feeling, the crowd was into it, I couldn’t ask for more.”
Sparta started the game hot, taking a 17-7 lead after the first quarter. Mount Olive battled back in the second, opening the quarter on an 11-0 run to take an 18-17 lead with 4:16 to go. Up 21-19 with 3 minutes to play, Mount Olive outscored Sparta 5-3 to take a 28-22 lead at the half.
In the third, the Marauders stretched their lead to 13 at one point, 42-29, on three-straight 3-pointers from Spencer. Sparta got within 45-40 with 26.5 seconds left, but a three-point by from Spencer closed out the quarter with Mount Olive up 48-40.
“At halftime we were down six and in the third quarter they got an 11, 12 point lead but we just had to slow the game down and hit our shots,” Frick said. “Getting the ball to (junior center) Mitch (Cohen) honestly, getting down low, that opened up things for the guards, open shots, open lanes. We had a couple letdowns, but over all in the fourth quarter we did what we had to do.”
Mount Olive had a 54-45 lead with 6:56 to go in regulation thanks to another pair of 3s from Spencer, but from there the Spartans started to chip away, scoring four-straight points to get within 54-50 with 6 minutes to go. Mount Olive junior forward Ryan Traub pushed the Marauders’ lead to 56-50, but five-straight points from the Spartans, including another 3 from Frick, got Sparta within one, 56-55 with 4:18 to go.
Spencer then sank two free throws for a 58-55 lead, but another basket by Frick pulled Sparta within 58-57 with 3:01 to play. Senior guard Steve Leonardo then scored for Mount Olive to make it a 60-57 game.
Frick finished with 34 points and 11 rebounds for the Spartans. Cohen also picked up a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds while Unglaub chipped in 10 points. For the Marauders, Spencer finished with 26 points, including five threes. Traub picked up a double-double with 17 points and 12 rebounds. Heeman was held to nine points but had 11 rebounds.
“It was really the same game, we’ve played (Mount Olive), I think this is the eighth time in the last three years and we split every season game with them and then we’ve been fortunate enough to win the state battles, but Kevin’s got a great program, he’s got a great group of kids, and tonight they showed that,” Sparta coach Brian Brennan said. “Obviously we hit a couple big shots at the end, got a couple of key stops and we’re just happy about it.”