As the third quarter turned into the fourth Saturday afternoon at Phillipsburg High School, the momentum continued to swing back and forth like a pendulum, as it had all game.
It was a 13-4 run for Hackettstown in the first half, only to be matched by a 13-3 spurt for the Sateliners. In the second half, it was an 8-1 run by the Tigers that was again one-upped by an 8-0 surge from Phillipsburg.
None proved to be a knockout punch, even if the last one gave the Stateliners a five-point lead with six minutes to play.
What did make the difference was a gritty final push from the Tigers down the stretch. Three free throws from Jelani Awai. A pair of steals from Tyler Akers, followed by a killer three from the senior guard. Some gritty work in the paint. And finally two more free throws from Robert Begley with 17.9 seconds left.
All of it added up to lift Hackettstown past Phillipsburg 53-49 in the Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex quarterfinals.
“It’s huge, especially in the luster of this gym, it’s unbelievable,” Tigers coach Mike McDonagh said. “We knew it was going to be a dog fight, we knew it would go either way by a couple points. We made some big plays.”
The fifth-seeded Tigers (13-7) advanced to next Saturday’s semifinals to take on the winner of No. 1 Hunterdon Central and No. 8 Pope John XXIII. It will be their third semifinal appearance in the last four years.
“It’s a huge win,” Akers said. “It’s sweet — especially my senior year, us five seniors, it’s really big for us to do it together.”
Akers led the way with 17 points, including four treys — the last of which proved to be the winning basket. Coming out of a timeout with the play drawn up for him, Akers came around a screen, caught a pass and calmly nailed the three to put Hackettstown up 50-47 with 1:43 left in the game.
“I knew I was going to be open, so I had to make the big shot,” Akers said. “During warmups, I was making every shot, so I knew it was going to be a good day.”
Akers later hit one of two from the line —the first half of the one-and-one hit front him and eventually decided to go in — with a minute left and then after a steal started by Matt Arcona and finished by Eddie O’Melia, Begley was fouled with 17.9 seconds left and drained both ends of a one-and-one.
“We’ve been so hot and cold with free throws all season that, you know what, you just don’t know with us,” McDonagh said. “We’re not so consistent. But Robert Begley hit two big free throws to make it a four-point lead. It put them at a little desperate mode now because they gotta score. … We lucked out today.”
While the Tigers went 9-for-17 from the line, hitting the ones that mattered most, the Sateliners (10-9) went just 5-for-13.
Hackettstown came out of the gates blazing, running out to an 18-9 lead by the end of the first quarter. And while that lead soon evaporated and turned into a deficit, it proved important to let the Tigers know they could hang on the road.
“We all knew this was a big game, so we had to come out hard and hit them first before they hit us,” Akers said. “We practiced a lot on their defense, thanks to our coaches for scouting them a lot.”
Arcona (14 points) turned in a strong effort in defending Phillipsburg junior guard Chris Mann, who poured in 20 points, but only six after halftime. Hackettstown’s senior forward got some help towards the end in ganging up against Mann.
“(Mann) is a beast, he’s tough to stop,” McDonagh said. “To be honest with you, we tried to junk it up a little bit. We worked a little because I thought we needed to have two on him, one in the front and one in the back because he does a nice job of getting in the post.”
McDonagh realized over the summer that he could have a special team on his hands for the 2016-17 season, so he beefed up the schedule with non-league games against teams like Orange, Morristown-Beard, Delbarton, Christian Brothers Academy and North Plainfield.
While it hasn’t always resulted in wins, it has made the Tigers into a tougher team mentally and physically, which showed again on Saturday.
“I knew how talented they were,” McDonagh said. “I knew in the summer what we were gonna have and maybe some games didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but it’s a dent in the armor. They played all these teams that are really good, and you know what, it makes us play better. Here’s another example — (Phillipsburg) is a really good team, but we had to play better.”
Greg Joyce may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GJoyce9. Find Lehigh Valley high school sports on Facebook.
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