RANDOLPH – Despite having lost to Chatham twice already this season, the Mendham boys basketball team knew it could pull out a victory when it mattered the most.
The fourth-seeded Minutemen rose the occasion Saturday night and defeated third-seeded Chatham 34-29 to win their first Morris County Tournament title since 2011.
“It’s awesome, it’s unbelievable,” said Mendham senior guard Brian Kenez, who was named the tournament MVP. “Before the year no one thought we’d be here and we worked all summer, coach (Kevin Schmid) believed in us, we believed in us and we just pulled it out.”
Mendham (20-5) went almost 17 minutes without a field goal, starting with 5:30 left in the first quarter until 4:26 left in the third. The two teams were tied 5-5 after a slow opening quarter, and the Minutemen scored all of its points in the second quarter on free throws, getting outscored by the Cougars 9-4 as Chatham (17-8) took a 14-9 lead into halftime.
Chatham opened the third quarter on four-straight points to take a 18-9 lead, and from there Mendham started to bounce back.
“Down nine I thought we were in a little bit of trouble, but they never gave up,” Schmid said. “We talked about finishing all the time and we wanted to finish the game and that’s what we were able to do.”
Senior forward Robert Annen sank two free throws to pull Mendham to within 18-11, but a basket by Chatham junior guard Colin McKenna stretched the Cougars’ lead to 20-11. Kenez then scored six-straight points, including sinking a free throw after getting fouled on a made 3-pointer, to get the Minutemen to within three, 20-17, with 3:48 left.
Freshman Jack Rooney then went to the line and sank both free throws to put Chatham up 22-17, but Kenez then connected on a three-point play and Annen sank two free throws with 6.9 seconds left to tie the game 22-22. Annen and Kenez were responsible for all of Mendham’s 22 points in the first half.
“I knew we were struggling, the fans were cheering the whole time, we had unbelievable support today and I knew we were struggling from the field,” Kenez said of falling behind. “But we kept attacking and finally one went down and we didn’t look back.”
Junior guard Jamie Conklin opened the fourth quarter with a basket that gave Mendham its first lead since the first quarter, 24-22. Chatham quickly answered back as Rooney sank another two free throws to retie the game, 24-24, with 6:16 left.
Mendham then went to the line three times but managed to only sink two shots to take a 26-24 lead with 2:51 to go. A 3-pointer from junior guard Tristan LeMon put Chatham back ahead, 27-26, but four free throws from Annen and Kenez again gave the Minutemen the 30-27 advantage with 1:04 left.
Rooney again went to the line with 48.4 seconds left and sank both his shots to pull the Cougars to within 30-29, but Kenez sank two free throws of his own 20 seconds later to keep Mendham ahead 32-29.
“Nothing,” Kenez said when asked if Mendham did anything different against Chatham. “We just really knocked it down on defense, we knew we could beat them because the past two games were so close, and we knew just one or two more possessions we would have had them, and that’s what happened tonight.”
With 11.4 seconds left, senior guard Keith Hall got a steal and scored for the 34-29 final and Mendham’s 10th MCT crown.
“It feels great, the guys really worked hard,” Schmid said. “I had four seniors, it was outstanding leadership that they gave us throughout the year, coming in, setting the tone and just never giving up.”
Kenez scored a game-high 18 points and pulled down eight rebounds while Annen scored 11 points. For Chatham, Rooney led with 11 points.
Chatham senior guard Graham Delaney and junior forward Colin McKenna were named to the All-Tournament Team, along with Annen, Hall and Morristown sophomore Kevin Hoehn.
Staff Writer Lauren Knego: 973-428-6674; email@example.com