RAHWAY – How valuable is senior guard Zion Pendleton to the Rahway boys’ basketball team?
For starters, he was the only Indian to score in double digits Thursday vs. division rival Summit.
With the game on the line late in the fourth quarter, after Summit pulled to within two thanks to the hustle and determination of senior Malcolm Sidebottom and two huge 3s made by starter Finbar McCormick and reserve Joe Lusardi, Pendleton sank consecutive free throws to extend Rahway’s slim advantage to four.
With the game now in its final minute and the crowd vociferously amped up, Summit came down the court and missed, with it looking like Rahway had the rebound. That was until Sidebottom was able to take the ball away and put it in to pull the Hilltoppers to within two once again.
Rahway then had the ball with 45 seconds to go, but Summit junior Eric Baier stole a Pendleton pass at midcourt that gave Summit back the ball. Timeout Summit – its final – with 35.9 seconds remaining.
After four passes, Sidebottom took the ball through the lane and put it in. However, he was called for an offensive charge, much to the dismay of Summit and its fans. No basket. No tie game.
Pendleton was fouled once more with 23.5 seconds on the clock. Again he stepped up to the free throw line and made both foul shots to bring the Rahway lead back up to four.
“Zion plays his best in the biggest games,” Rahway head coach Jeff Lubreski said. “He brings such toughness. He lifts the rest of the team in crunch situations.”
Sidebottom then missed a layup and Rahway junior Jordan Bell came down with – perhaps – the biggest rebound of the game, grabbing the ball with both hands and securing it strongly against his chest.
After quickly getting fouled, Bell then made one of two free throws to put the Indians ahead by five. Baier missed a 3 and host Rahway held on.
In another hard-fought, emotional, dramatic and very physical Summit-Rahway matchup, Rahway came away with a 59-54 triumph in Thursday afternoon’s Union County Conference-Valley Division boys’ basketball clash at Rahway’s Earl H. Walter Gymnasium.
As a result, Rahway swept Summit in Valley Division play this year and improved to 16-1, the North 2, Group 3 top-seeded Indians now winners of nine straight.
Rahway also clinched the UCC’s Valley Division championship outright for a fourth straight season, this time finishing 6-0 in the four-team division, also sweeping Westfield and Scotch Plains.
Here’s a look at Rahway’s Valley Division record the past four championship seasons:
2018-2019: Rahway went 6-0 and won the Valley Division outright.
2017-2018: Rahway went 12-0 and won the Valley Division outright.
2016-2017: Rahway went 11-1 and won the Valley Division outright.
2015-2016: Rahway went 9-1 and won the Valley Division outright.
Pendleton led all scorers with 24 points, half of that total coming in the all-important fourth quarter.
Pendleton also came up with four steals and avoided fouling out after garnering his fourth foul with four minutes to go.
“Coach said don’t sleep, that Summit will keep coming, which it did,” Pendleton said. “We had to rely on our defense and just keep pushing.”
Sidebottom, who did not play in the Jan. 17 game at Summit that Rahway came back in the fourth quarter to capture 38-37, netted 13 of his team-high 18 points in the final eight minutes.
Sidebottom opened the scoring in the fourth quarter with his second and final 3-pointer – from beyond the top of the key – following Rahway’s biggest lead of 12 points at 41-29 entering the period.
To its credit Summit played hard right until the very end. The Hilltoppers chipped away at the lead and was a possession away from tying the game or taking the lead.
Summit fell for the second straight game to fall to 14-5 overall and finished in second place in the Valley Division at 4-2. The Hilltoppers are the seventh seed for the North 2, Group 3 playoffs.
Baier, going to the hoop strong all game long, was Summit’s other player who scored in double digits. He finished with 16 points, the first 10 poured in before intermission.
“If we play defense and execute we will be okay,” said Pendleton, who was also the only Rahway player to score in double digits – he scored 11 points – in Rahway’s first win over Summit. The Indians outscored the Hilltoppers 15-6 in the fourth quarter of that matchup after trailing by eight heading in the game’s final period.
“We missed Malcolm in the first game and that was our focal point today,” Lubreski said. “Eric Baier really stepped up for them. We were hoping he would miss a couple.
“Once Sidebottom got hot and started to score there really wasn’t any margin for error.”
NOTES: The first half included Rahway with five leads, Summit with four and ties at 2-2 and 18-18.
Rahway took the lead for good at 20-18 midway through the second quarter when Pendleton made a layup for his fourth field goal.
In Union County Tournament first-round action, 10th-seeded Rahway will host 15th-seeded Cranford Saturday at 1:30 p.m.
Summit, the 11th seed, will host 14th-seeded Gov. Livingston Saturday at 1:30 p.m.
The winners advance to Wednesday’s second round, which will consist of the tournament’s final four games before the quarterfinals.
UNION COUNTY CONFERENCE-VALLEY DIVISION
BOYS’ BASKETBALL AT RAHWAY HIGH SCHOOL
Summit (14-5, 4-2) 13 11 05 25 – 54
Rahway (16-1, 6-0) 12 16 13 18 – 59
SUMMIT HILLTOPPERS (54):
23-Malcolm Sidebottom, senior, 4-2-4-18
15-Joe Lusardi, junior, 1-1-0-5
2-Finbar McCormick, senior, 0-1-0-3
13-Eric Baier, junior, 8-0-0-16
22-Will Hellings, junior, 1-1-1-6
24 Jackson Tyler, senior, 2-0-0-4
34-Dom Yorio, senior, 1-0-0-2
35-Jackson Rind, junior, 0-0-0-0
Starters: Baier, McCormack,
Sidebottom, Tyler, Yorio.
RAHWAY INDIANS (59):
32-Jordan Bell, junior, 1-1-2-7
24-Zion Pendleton, senior, 9-0-6-24
11-Tahlee Bailey, junior, 2-0-3-7
21-Kenneth Posy, freshman, 1-0-3-5
23-Mike Natson, junior, 1-0-2-4
4-Jarid Vertil, junior, 1-0-0-2
31-Amari Thompson, sophomore, 1-1-0-5
25-Jamauri Ellis, senior, 0-1-0-3
33-Caleb Wilson, senior, 0-0-0-0
Starters: Bell, Thompson,
Pendleton, Ellis, Bailey.