South Jersey Sports Report: Mazur Leads Mainland Past Cedar Creek
LINWOOD — Mainland Regional boys basketball coach Dan Williams might want to start purchasing Rolaids by the case — or at least in the value pack size. The Mustangs’ Achilles heel this season has been giving up big second-half leads, most notably when they surrendered a 24-point advantage against Ocean City on Jan. 3 only to hang on and win, 63-62.
On Monday afternoon, Mainland built a 45-29 lead over visiting Cedar Creek and nearly gave that lead away, but some timely free throws and a runout basket at the end by senior guard Luke Mazur helped the Mustangs escape with a 53-48 win over the Pirates, and sole possession of first place in the Cape-Atlantic League National Conference.
Mainland improved to 9-4 overall and 5-0 in divisional games, moving a game ahead of second-place Cedar Creek (6-4, 4-1). The Mustangs also had to endure a frenzied 14-point fourth quarter from Pirates star Najee Coursey, who led the comeback charge after sitting out much of the second and third quarters with foul trouble.
“We’re great at making things ugly down the stretch and making it closer than maybe it needs to be. That’s probably on me, making sure they are in better positions against pressure, things like that,” Williams said. “One thing we do work on — but we insist on doing the opposite — is moving the ball and just holding it. Going to the free-throw line is more valuable sometimes than taking an open shot. It started at about four minutes (remaining), we took a three from the corner — which is probably the toughest place anyway — granted, it was an open three, but if we move the ball for 30 more seconds, it’s more valuable than knocking that down there.”
“It kind of felt like the Ocean City game. We’re going to work on it in practice and we were just talking about it in the locker room. We don’t want things to get too crazy at the end of games,” added Mazur, who finished with a game-high 25 points, including a pair of 3-pointers. Mazur also went 7-of-8 from the free-throw line, including 5-of-6 in the fourth quarter. “We were up by 15 and going into the spread, which is when we hold the ball and we’re not really looking to score. We wanted to waste time off but that turned into turning the ball over and getting sloppy. Coursey had a few dunks, the crowd gets into it — Cedar Creek’s crowd got into it — but I’m glad we pulled it out. That’s all that matters.
“We were having a little trouble inbounding the ball,” Mazur added. “I think we were crowding the near side of the court a little too much. We switched from Zach Matik to me (inbounding) and I think that’s what changed everything, because I was passing it to him and he was getting it right back to me (to get fouled) and shoot free throws.”
Good start, bad start: Characterizing the first quarter depended on which shade of green you might have been wearing on Monday. Mainland got outscored 21-13 in the opening frame on Saturday in a 55-44 loss to Washington Township, a team that came in with just two wins, so jumping out to an early lead was imperative. The Mustangs got off to a 8-2 lead and didn’t allow Cedar Creek to even score a point for nearly the first four minutes of action.
“Washington Township played well, but we also threw up a little bit of a clunker on Saturday, so we said if we come out today, play well and execute and get a win, it doesn’t entirely erase it, but at least we can come out of this three-games-in-four-days feeling like it was a good weekend,” Williams said.
“We were kind of worried in the first quarter because on Saturday we had a bad start to the game. Our coaches were saying they didn’t want us to have a sloppy first quarter, and we turned it up right away,” Mazur said. “The first play of the game set the tone when we threw that lob to Jake (Cook). He didn’t dunk it, but he laid it in and I think that set the tone for the rest of the game. When you execute something on the first play of the game, that sets the tone for the rest of the game.”
The Pirates, however, came back behind the three-point shooting of Kyree Tinsley and Coursey, who combined to make three 3-pointers and bring Cedar Creek within 12-11 by the end of the first quarter.
“Being able to get out of the gates early and being able to score (is key). Some games we’re not able to score for the first three or four minutes of the game, and by the time we catch our flow we might be down by seven or eight points, and now it’s an uphill battle to try to get ahead,” said Pirates coach Randy Dean. “So, if we can get out of the gates and get started early, right from the tip, I think that will open a lot of things up for us.”
Foul trouble: Coursey, Cedar Creek’s star forward, got into early foul trouble and that changed the flow of the game. He picked up his third foul early in the second quarter and was not a factor again until he exploded for 14 points in the fourth quarter.
“We had to sit him the last three or four minutes of the second quarter and our offense kind of got stagnant,” Dean said. “We were playing from behind, down 10 at the half. We finally woke up in the fourth quarter, but by that time it was a little too late. But, they fought, and that’s all I can ask of them.”
“He does so much for them and is such a good athlete, not just getting out in the passing lanes and the dunks and all that, but he’s a tough defender because he can protect the rim,” Williams added. “We didn’t think we did anything all that different, it was just that he was out and Jake got freed up, and when he (gets freed up) that frees other guys up.”
Making a run: Cedar Creek shaved the lead down to 27-20 early in the third quarter, but Mainland had extended its advantage to 40-27 by the end of the quarter thanks to a buzzer-beating three from Ja’Quan Mace, and with less than six minutes to play the Mustangs led 45-29 after a traditional three-point play from Cook, a senior forward.
But the Pirates went on a 10-2 run to get to within 47-39 with 2:02 to go, highlighted by several buckets from Coursey. Coursey then scored off a steal with less than a minute to go to bring the Pirates to within 50-44, and he nailed a three with a little more than 30 seconds left to make it 51-47.
Too much Mazur: After cutting the deficit to 51-48 on a free throw from Elijah Smalls, however, Mainland was able to hang on thanks to Mazur. Cedar Creek got the offensive rebound on Small’s missed second free throw but Matik made a steal and heaved an outlet pass to Mazur, who scored on a breakaway layup with a few seconds remaining to ice the game.
“He enjoys scoring, for sure, and he can get hot and he’s good at it,” Williams said of Mazur. “He’s easily one of our more effective scorers, but so is Jake. So, at halftime, we saw Jake only had four shot attempts, so (Luke) has to do a little more recognition of that and making sure that with somebody like Coursey out (of the lineup) we get the ball to Jake. But when Luke is on, I have no problem with him shooting from anywhere, and he’s done a nice job. He handles the ball for us a lot of the time, he gets guys into spots. We ask him to score on top of that. He’s having a real nice season.”
“Last year I was in a limited role and I took that with open arms and played my role, coming off the bench and providing a spark,” Mazur said. “But this year I’m one of the leaders, one of the captains of the team, and my dad tells me when I’m open I have to let that thing fly because I’m not going to get too many chances. Teams are seeing that I can shoot. On Saturday, Washington Township was face-guarding me full court, so when I get my chances I have to take them.”
Stats: Aside from Mazur, Mainland got 12 points from Cook, including seven in the second half, six points from Kareem Spence and five from Mace. Cedar Creek was led by Coursey’s 21 points, and the Pirates also got 11 from Tinsley and seven from Small, all of which came from the free-throw line.
What’s next: Mainland travels to Lower Cape May on Wednesday at 7 p.m. Cedar Creek travels to Ocean City on Wednesday at 6 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays