CLARK – In what has to be considered one of the biggest upsets in Union County Tournament history, it was uniform No. 1 performer for Union that knocked out the No. 1 seed, making the game-winning basket with one second left to lift the Farmers to an absolutely stunning one-point victory.
And that star player – the student-athlete with three names – became the hero for a team that entered the game under .500 and 0-2 against the heavily favored opponent it was up against.
With seven seconds left and the Farmers down by one, Union senior guard Eric Lofton-Harris – after receiving the in-bounds pass from senior teammate Corey Edwards – drove past mid court on the right side and then turned inside into the lane.
Dribbling past Roselle Catholic defenders, Lofton-Harris put up a one-handed shot that banked off the glass and into the basket as the clock went from one second to the buzzer.
The biggest basket that Lofton-Harris ever made lifted eighth-seeded Union to a huge upset of top-seeded Roselle Catholic 64-63 in the second of the two 77th annual Frank J. Cicarell boys’ basketball Union County Tournament quarterfinals that were contested Saturday night in Johnson High School’s Louis J. Peragallo Gymnasium.
There was a pulse you could feel in the standing-room only gym that began with Union Catholic’s near upset of Linden in the first game.
As the fourth quarter of the Union-Roselle Catholic game progressed, the gym was up for grabs. Union, with its players and fans celebrating on the court after the Lofton-Harris game-winner, stole away a victory from the team that – perhaps – had the most to lose.
Union, which improved to 11-12 with its second straight win, is in the semifinals for the first time since 2010 and once again will be seeking to reach the final for the first time since 1999. Union last won the crown in 1980 for the second time, with its first title coming in 1974.
The Farmers also prevented Roselle Catholic, which had a four-game winning streak snapped and fell to 17-5, from reaching the semifinals for the third straight year. The Lions have never won the UCT and have only reached the final twice, losing in 1963 and last year.
It was only the second loss Roselle Catholic suffered to a Union County opponent this season, with the other one coming to Elizabeth in league play. Earlier in the year, the Lions were ranked as high as No. 2 in the state by The Star-Ledger.
Union entered the game 10-12 and suffered Union County Conference-Watchung Division losses at Roselle Catholic 86-54 on Jan. 8 and 62-46 at home to the Lions on Jan. 29. RC won the division for the first time, fashioning a 9-1 league
mark that included a split with Elizabeth.
When Lofton-Harris hit “The Shot Heard ‘Round Union County,” none of that mattered.
“As soon as I put it up I knew it was going in,” Lofton-Harris said. “There was no doubt in my mind.”
Union came back from a second half deficit as large as 10 points at 44-34 with 2:20 to go in the third quarter.
After a big 3-point basket by senior Jaleel Chain tied the game for the first time in the fourth quarter at 53-53 with 4:21 left, the Farmers took three leads. The third one came on a 3-point basket Edwards sank from the left side to give Union a 62-61 advantage with 49 seconds to go.
Roselle Catholic then passed the ball twice before senior Hakim Saintill missed a jumper. However, senior teammate and Syracuse-bound Union transfer Tyler Roberson came up with a huge offensive rebound.
Roberson then passed to freshman guard Asante Gist, who missed a 3-pointer from the right side. The Lions still managed to come down with the offensive rebound and called a timeout with 13 seconds left.
Freshman Matt Bullock took the ball out from under his basket and passed the ball to sophomore Malachi Richardson, who went strong through the lane to bank in a shot for a 63-62 lead. Union quickly called its final timeout with just seven ticks remaining.
“I have confidence in my teammates and myself,” said Edwards, who set the final play in motion with his pass to Lofton-Harris. “When Eric’s shot went in it was crazy. It’s amazing to beat the top seed.”
For second-year Union head coach Kevin Feeley, who was previously an assistant at Roselle Catholic under present RC head coach Dave Boff, Lofton-Harris was the player he wanted to make something special happen.
“We wanted the ball in Eric’s hands,” Feeley said.
Here’s how Lofton-Harris explained the game’s final drive: “I saw Saintill on the left side and Gist coming from the right. I split the two defenders and saw that Roberson was back in case I dished it.
“Then I just drove and put the ball up.
“We’ve worked so hard for this and it’s about time all of our hard work paid off.”
“Corey made a good pass, he did a phenomenal job, and Eric beat the first guy and went up and over the best player in the state (Feeley was referring to Roberson),” Feeley said.
When his team was down 10 points, Feeley still felt the Farmers had a shot.
“Eric and Jaleel had four fouls and we knew that if we fell any further behind the game was going to be over,” Feeley said. “Jaleel got hot at the end, which was big.
“I’m really excited for Eric. He missed some foul shots and was able to come back and make such a big shot. He’s matured so much and didn’t let the missed free throws affect him.”
“We had to get stops,” Lofton-Harris said. “We were undersized, so playing defense the whole game was tough. We had to box out and try to let nobody get to the middle.”
Roberson picked up his fourth foul with exactly five minutes to go in the third quarter and went to the bench. At that time RC led 36-31 after holding a 33-26 halftime lead.
Roberson re-entered the game with 7:18 to go in the fourth quarter and Roselle Catholic still up by five at 49-44. With Roberson out for more than five minutes, Union was not able to trim Roselle Catholic’s lead at all.
One play that came back to haunt Roselle Catholic was when the Lions slowed things down in the fourth quarter. The Lions held the ball for what seemed like more than a minute, leading 53-50.
They then made their move with what they thought was a surprise alley-oop pass to Roberson. It didn’t work.
Roberson couldn’t handle the pass and failed to dunk the ball through the net after his leap toward the basket.
Union not only gained the rebound, but dribbled down court with the ball and that’s when Chain hit the 3 that tied the game at 53-53. It was a big change in momentum and a five-point swing that turned out to be quite key.
Two years ago when the UCT went to this format of putting the top four seeds right into the quarterfinals, it was fifth-seeded Roselle Catholic that knocked off fourth-seeded Union 57-42 in a quarterfinal at Rahway, preventing all of the top four seeds from making it to the semifinals.
All four made it last year, but now this year it was eighth-seeded Union turning the tables and preventing top-seeded Roselle Catholic of getting to the semifinals. Feeley was a coach on both winning sides.
Many thought this was Roselle Catholic’s UCT to lose since the Lions made the step of reaching the final last year for only the second time and first time since 1963. Roselle Catholic will have to wait another year to try – again – to win its first UCT championship.
One person who didn’t take anything for granted and was not looking ahead at all was Boff. He made the argument before the tournament started that there were teams seeded below 1-4 that people needed to take a second look at to see just how good they were and how capable they might be of advancing a long way.
Both Roselle Catholic basketball teams are to be credited for winning their Watchung Divisions. Both were very deserving of being the top seeds for their tournaments.
Both also lost to the eighth seed in their quarterfinals, with the girls’ falling to Oak Knoll 49-43 Thursday night at Rahway.
Both will now focus on their Non-Public, South B sections, with the boys’ seeded No. 2 and the girls’ No. 1.
Union played better against Roselle Catholic in its second division game against the Lions, but still lost by double digits.
“Playing Roselle Catholic a third time was huge,” Feeley said. “Each time we played a little better, although even in the second game they won by a fairly big margin.”
Union will next face another team it went 0-2 against in Watchung Division play, that squad being Linden in Tuesday night’s first UCT semifinal, scheduled for a 7:30 tipoff at Kean University’s Harwood Arena in Union.
Union lost at home to Linden 77-75 on Dec. 18 after leading by eight going into the fourth quarter and was then blown out at Linden on Jan. 24 by the score of 56-35.
“They out-toughed us in the second game,” Feeley said. “They really whooped us.
“We played with them once. Hopefully this will be our time to make the proper adjustments.”
Union’s first two UCT wins came over 17th-seeded Governor Livingston 68-33 last Sunday at Rahway and then over 16th-seeded Scotch Plains 63-55 Wednesday at Roselle Catholic.
“We’ve been preaching the little things and the kids have really bought in to what we’re trying to teach them,” Feeley said. “They keep working hard and that’s all I can ask.”
UNION CATHOLIC GIVES LINDEN ALL IT CAN HANDLE
When the county tournament was seeded last week, the best bet to break up a heavily-predicted Roselle Catholic-Elizabeth-Patrick School-Linden final four was upstart Union Catholic.
Sparked by senior long-range sharpshooter Damon Lynn, the Vikings – winners of the Union County Conference’s Mountain Division championship – are enjoying their best season in some time.
Last month at Kean, the Vikings played well enough to have a seven-point lead on Linden at intermission before falling to the Tigers by seven.
Union Catholic, with a record of 18-3, tried to carry that momentum into its county tournament rematch with Linden. It took the Vikings awhile, but Union Catholic pushed Linden to the wire before falling to the Tigers for the second time.
Fourth-seeded Linden, sparked by the perfect free throw shooting by Terrell Bagley, came back from a four-point deficit with 6:13 to play to top fifth-seeded Union Catholic 70-62 in Saturday night’s 77th annual Frank J. Cicarell boys’ basketball Union County Tournament quarterfinals at Johnson High School’s Louis J. Peragallo Gymnasium.
Tuesday, Feb. 19
8-Union vs. 4-Linden, 7:30 p.m.
In Watchung Division play Linden swept Union:
Dec. 18: Linden 77, Union 75 – at Union
Jan. 24: Linden 56, Union 35 – at Linden
Wednesday, Feb. 20
3-Patrick School vs. 2-Elizabeth, 7:30 p.m.
In Watchung Division play the teams split:
Jan. 5: Patrick School 75, Elizabeth 48 – at Rahway
Jan. 22: Elizabeth 59, Patrick School 48 – at Elizabeth
Saturday, Feb. 16
Patrick School 65, Plainfield 51
Elizabeth 72, Roselle 33
Linden 70, Union Catholic 62
Union 64, Roselle Catholic 63
Linden improved to 16-6, while Union Catholic fell to 18-4.
The semifinals will be eighth-seeded Union vs. Linden Tuesday night at 7:30 at Kean and third-seeded Patrick School (20-3) vs. second-seeded Elizabeth (16-4) Wednesday night at 7:30 at Kean.
Union last won the UCT in 1980, Linden last won it in 2007, the Patrick School in 2011 and Elizabeth in 2004.
Bagley was a perfect 10-for-10 from the line against Union Catholic – all of his free throws coming in the fourth quarter – and finished with 15 points. His first four foul shots tied the game for the fifth time at 53-53 after a free throw by Union Catholic’s Serge Gilbert gave the Vikings their biggest lead at 53-49.
Union Catholic led 52-49 beginning the fourth quarter after winning the third 22-17. The first time the teams played Union Catholic had a horrible third quarter, lost its lead and then trailed Linden the rest of the way.
After an inside basket by Linden’s James Julius gave the Tigers their sixth lead and the advantage for good at 55-53, Bagley continued to drive to the basket and continued to get fouled.
Bagley also continued to make his free throws, which were one of the big differences for Linden down the stretch.
Lynn had the hot-shooting hand for Union Catholic once again, but not in the fourth quarter. Lynn finished with a game-high 32 points, but only scored twice in the fourth quarter, both points coming from the line.
Lynn’s sixth and final 3-point basket – and his third in the third quarter, all from the left side – gave Union Catholic its 52-49 edge going into the final eight minutes. Lynn made eight 3s in his team’s first game against Linden.
Linden junior center Quadri Moore was consistent, finishing with 22 points, 10 in the first half and 12 in the second.
Union Catholic led Linden at the half in their first game and at the end of three quarters in their second. The Vikings came even closer to overtaking Linden this time before the Tigers found a way once again.
When the game began, it appeared that Linden was going to run away with. The Tigers led 5-0 before fans were getting comfortable in their seats.
Linden then went up by 12 on two occasions – 17-5 and 23-11 – before Union Catholic calmed the game down a bit and started to chip away.
When Ashton Lofton banked a 3-pointer from the right side with 3:55 left in the first half, he gave Union Catholic its first lead at 26-25. An 11-0 run got the Vikings back in the game.
Linden began to build separation again at the onset of the third quarter when the Tigers started on an 8-3 run for a 40-33 lead. Union Catholic continued to chip away again and tied the game at 44-44 on Lynn 3 and later at 49-49 on a free throw for a conventional 3-point play by David Hawthorne.
A Linden 8-0 run in the fourth quarter – six of the points coming on Bagley free throws – put Linden ahead 57-53. Two free throws by Lynn and one of two by Lofton pulled the Vikings to within 57-56 with four minutes left.
That was the closest Union Catholic would get.
Linden closed on a 13-4 run, continuing to hit almost all of their free throws. Linden made 24 from the line and Union Catholic 19.
UCT QUARTERFINAL AT JOHNSON
5-UNION CATHOLIC (18-4) 14 16 22 10 – 62
4-LINDEN (16-6) 23 9 17 21 – 70
5-UNION CATHOLIC VIKINGS (62):
5-Damon Lynn, 3-6-8-32
4-Ashton Lofton, 2-1-4-11
20-David Hawthorne, 3-0-1-7
23-Dayne Horrobin, 2-0-1-5
44-Jahad Harris, 1-0-4-6
15-Dalon Ryles, 0-0-0-0
14-Nate Johnson, 0-0-0-0
10-Zack Lisojo, 0-0-0-0
24-Cameron Banks, 0-0-0-0
35-Mike Borik, 0-0-0-0
33-Justin Davidson, 0-0-0-0
21-Greg Gagliardi, 0-0-0-0
13-Serge Gilbert, 0-0-1-1
Starters: Harris, Hawthorne,
Horrobin, Lofton, Lynn
4-LINDEN TIGERS (70):
30-Quadri Moore, 8-0-6-22
1-Justin Dolbrice, 1-0-0-2
2-Josh Carter, 3-0-6-12
5-Juwan Jones, 3-1-0-9
10-Terrell Bagley, 1-1-10-15
23-Alonzo Hamilton, 2-0-0-4
4-James Julius, 2-0-2-6
14-Troy Myers, 0-0-0-0
3-William Sessoms, 0-0-0-0
25-Richard Medley, 0-0-0-0
15-Udraka Bey, 0-0-0-0
22-Erich Rotter, 0-0-0-0
24-Chris Beyer, 0-0-0-0
13-Dazzmen Johnson, 0-0-0-0
Starters: Moore, Jones,
Bagley, Dolbrice, Carter