The Ridge High School boys basketball team knew they would be facing a tough opponent when they traveled to No. 1 seed Linden Monday evening to play for the North 2, Group 4 state championship. Playing in a hostile environment for the first time in the playoffs in the sold-out Linden High School gym, Ridge's players gave it their all but came up short by just three points, despite an opportunity in last few seconds.
It looked like it would be a long night for the Devils when Linden went up 8-0 just minutes into the game. "It could have been a 20-point game really quick, but this team is made up of fighters and (we) just keep coming at you and coming at you," said Ridge head coach Brian Feath. And Ridge would storm back to tie the game at 8 and finish the quarter tied at 13 all.
In the second period, Ridge would get into some foul trouble, most notably Eric Klacik who would sit out the majority of the 2nd and 3rd quarters of the game. "Another ball handler, another shooter, another senior out there who just makes plays for ya," said Feath. "He's fearless. Minutes-wise, throughout the whole game, I don't know how many of the 32 minutes he played (due to foul trouble)."
Linden would take full advantage of the fouls and go 6-for-6 in the second period and 13-for-16 in the game. By comparison, Ridge would take and make the 2 freethrows they had for the entire game.
As the game wore on, Ridge and Linden stayed neck and neck and with 2:45 left in the game, Eric Klacik would fire a 3 pointer from the top of the key to tie the score at 41-41. Moments later, Klacik would get his 5th foul and head to the bench. Ridge would take the lead at 43-41 on a shot by Ridge high scorer Kevin Doolan.
On the next possession, Linden big man Quardri Moore would score on a rebound and off balance shot and get fouled by Hugh Morris. When he made the freethrow, the score would be 44-43 Linden.
With 28 seconds to go in the game, Ridge's Lane Legband would get called for a foul under the Ridge basket, the team's 7th foul. Linden would go to the line for a 1-and-1 opportunity and both would fall, bringing the score to 48-43 Linden.
Ridge took the ball down the floor and with time ticking down, Jake Mahon would coolly do what he's done all season for the Devils. With just 17 seconds to go, he dropped a 3 point basket to put Ridge within two at 48-46.
After a time out on the floor, Linden would inbound and get the ball over halfcourt and Ridge would foul with now 10 seconds left in the game. In a roar that vibrated everywhere, Josh Carter would sink the first, but miss the second freethrow bringing the score to 49-46 Linden.
"They were locked in mentally and made a game of it and we still had a chance to win that game at the end," said Feath. "It was anybody's ball game. I kept telling them through the 3rd and 4th periods that this was right where we wanted to be."
With the room at a fever pitch, Jake Mahon would go up for a 3 point basket from the left corner to tie the score, but his shot was blocked out of bounds. Now just 2 seconds remained. Ridge would inbound and with all the 3 point specialists heavily guarded, the ball would come to Lane Legband high above the arc.Legband would put up a beauty as the buzzer sounded, it would hit the backboard, the rim and bounce away. Linden had its three point lead in the bank, and the game was over.
"In a game like this, you need to make big plays, and they made more big plays than we did," said Feath.
"We put everything out there, but unfortunately we got some tough calls and take that killed us in the end," said Matt Gerrity. "This was awesome. Right now it is hitting us hard, but looking back on the season, 27-2, county and conference champions, that's a hell of a season."
"It hurts right now," said Eric Klacik. "I love my guys. We had a great season, we accomplished every other goal besides this one. When we look back on it in a couple of weeks, we'll know it was a good season."
"If you had said coming off the bus that we would be down 3 with 3 minutes left to this team, I would have said OK," said Hugh Morris. "It was maybe three plays in the whole game that made the difference. A missed call or a missed shot or a box out or a ball bouncing off the rim the wrong way, you don't want to lose that way. We are proud of ourselves, but right now it is just hard to see past the wall, but we'll get there."
"All we have been saying is that we left it all out on the floor, it was all we could have done," said Jake Mahon. "I don't know if they were the better team, but we left it all on the floor."
"We missed a ton of good looks, and that is not what we do, we knock those down," said Feath. "It certainly wasn't our best game, but obviously you have to give a lot of credit to Linden, tough environment, tough place to play. But our kids were not going down without a fight. When Linden would stretch out a lead, we made shots, we made plays. This group always seems to thrive under adversity, a little bit of chaos, in those pressure situations they always seem to play a little better. "
"This is a great senior class: winner, leaders, unselfish, they love each other, they work hard for each other. I could coach another 30 years and never see another group like this. We accomplished every one of our goals except tonight. We were 27-2, Len Sepanek champions, conference champions and county champions. This is a special, special group. Whatever they do in their lives, they will be winners." — Feath
Schools Superintendent Nick Markarian said at Monday night's Board of Education meeting that this was the first time Ridge basketball had reached the state final level in 40 years.