Mountainside boys basketball finishes non-league with key win
Scaling the Metro League mountain is tough enough for the most fearless, gifted groups, let alone a club made up of strictly first-year varsity players.
Mountainside is about to get introduced the Metro trench wars, but it couldn't be more stoked for a shot to shock the boys' basketball scene in its varsity debut. There's talent across the board starting with a junior class headlined by Mitch Rose, Nzube Mekkam, Andrew Ingalls and Grayson Rowell, amongst others. Underclassmen like Brett Linhart, Sammy Cohen and Dezman Baker possess intriguing potential.
The Mavericks' play style is well suited for Metro and frankly is a breath of fresh air in a league that has sometimes relied too much on individual offense, at least early on.
There will be bumps in the road and growing pangs that can't be sidestepped, but Mountainside is on the rise and continued to show as such when it closed out non-league play with a 59-47 win over Century at Mountainside High School on Jan. 4. At the dawn of league action, the team-wide confidence surely isn't lacking either.
"I think we can beat any team in Metro," Ingalls said. "I'm sure pretty sure everyone is looking down on us and I'm ready to show them what we have. We're the new team, the younger kids, but Metro doesn't know what we are, yet. There are some good teams in Metro and we're excited to play them. I feel like we can compete with them."
There's nothing like playing against teams twice in a season, facing players you've seen dozens of times over the years both at the youth and high school level. Scouting reports are deeper and more detailed. Strengths and weaknesses are far from hidden. The crowds and arenas that were once docile in December take on lives of their own as the league slate unfolds. Even the referees tend to officiate differently. Conference play is truly a contrastive beast. At the surface level, it would seem Mountainside might be mincemeat for the Metro's elite. Squads like Southridge, Jesuit and Sunset are naturally more seasoned, stronger and informed than the green Mavericks. But Mountainside is far from a pushover. Its talent level isn't that of a startup operation beginning at ground zero.
"We're the team that's being hunted," Mekkam said. "Teams see Mountainside on the calendar and don't want to lose to us. They think they can out-talent us, outmuscle us and play better than us. Some people think we're going to finish last in Metro, so we need to feed off of that and use that energy to prove everybody wrong. I think we're a lot more capable than people think. There are big things coming ahead."
Mountainside's offensive system, put into place by head coach Dustin Hewitt, is a motion offense that can have four players on the perimeter with Ingalls in the post or five players spread across the court at one time. The Mavs were in perpetual motion against Century, moving in unison, flashing to the ball, then cutting backdoor, screening to get each other open, making the extra pass. The ball didn't stick in the hands of one player and the man movement off the ball flowed. Linhart, Cohen and Mekkam zipped dimes to cutters and found open shooters like Rowell for three-point looks. Linhart, a sophomore guard, had four assists alone in the second quarter, all brilliant looks inside that the Maverick found open, even if only for a split second. On one sequence, Linhart helped off his man, stepped in and took a charge. Then the point threw an overhead bullet pass to Cohen beneath the rim for an and-one three-point play to go up 24-18. Mekkam got rolling as well, scoring Mountainside's last five points of the second quarter while providing the vibrancy and swagger as the Mavs went into the halftime break up 33-28.
"We feed off of our energy," Mekkam said. "When we're energetic, on the bench, on the floor, that's when good things fall into place for us every single time. Tonight we did a good job of keeping the energy and intensity up."
It's clear the Mavericks possess high basketball intellect and the passing chops to make plays without dribbling the air out of the basketball. Sharing the basketball is prioritized instead of one-on-one play.
"One thing we do really well is play unselfishly, though sometimes we over pass," Mekkam said. "We like to move the ball around and get everybody involved. We make sure we hit the open guy no matter what."
With Linhart saddled with foul trouble, Cohen took the playmaking reins in the second half and didn't skip a beat. The sophomore southpaw smartly fired an outlet pass to an open Rowell for three. Later the lefty drove right and pitched the ball out to a stationed Alex Roman to go up 45-39 in the third.
Mountainside led just 45-43 at the end of three, but Ingalls scored five points and snatched four boards in the fourth to help steady the Mavs. Four of Mountainside's five fourth quarter field goals were assisted including a swished Rowell three off a well crafted out of bounds play by Hewitt that gave Mountainside a 54-47 lead late in the final period. The Mavericks' man-to-man defense stepped up as well as Mountainside pulled away with stops and cash-ins at the free throw line as the fourth dwindled away.
"Usually we lose our heads a little bit, but we stuck in and stayed in the game," Ingalls said.
The Metro newcomer kept Century off the glass to move its non-league record to 5-8 which puts them at No. 38 in the 6A power rankings. Ingalls led the Mavs with 11 points and 11 boards, one of many double-doubles to come and Mekkam paced the scoring with a team-high 14. Cohen had 13 points and four assists while Linhart had a game-high six dimes.
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