Cardinal boys survive and advance

Boys basketball

By: Jim Green
   It might not have been pretty, but the Lawrence High School boys basketball team got the job done.
   Sophomore center Brett Brackett tallied 11 points and eight rebounds to lead a gutsy effort, as 10th-seeded Lawrence upset seventh-seeded Pennington 49-36 Monday in the first round of the Mercer County Tournament. The Cardinals used a 14-0 third-quarter run to prevail in a physical game wrought with fouls and poor offensive execution by both sides.
   "It was physical," Lawrence coach Pat Tarrant said. "Both teams lost their composure. We jumped on them in the third quarter. We were able to get some distance from them, and then it got ugly."
   The game degraded into a foul-fest in the fourth quarter, as three Pennington players fouled out, and the Cardinals went on a procession to the free-throw line. The Cardinals, though, went just 4-for-15 from the stripe in the fourth, instead relying on a superb defensive effort to carry them into the quarterfinals of the county tournament.
   "It (the poor foul shooting) is nothing out of the ordinary for us," Tarrant said. "We have struggled all year from the foul line. Today we didn’t shoot very well."
   The Cardinals visited second-seeded Steinert in the tournament quarterfinals Wednesday. Regardless of the outcome of that game, though, the Cardinals can be proud of their ability to pull out a hard-fought win at Pennington.
   "You don’t know what to expect (in the county tournament)," Tarrant said. "It’s the post-season. You can’t gauge what to expect from the other teams."
   The Prep B Red Raiders turned out to be a tough team that refused to give in, even after the Cardinals used a 14-0 run in third quarter to push their lead from one to 16. Lawrence then used a balanced team effort to hold on through a physical fourth quarter.
   Brackett received support from senior guard John Calvo, who scored seven points, and senior forward Garrett Santoro and sophomore guard Chris Martine, who each added six. The Cardinals also received strong bench play, as Tarrant shuttled players in and out to keep his squad fresh in the final period.
   "A lot of guys got some meaningful minutes," Tarrant said. "Our seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th guys are all very close."
   Junior Shamil Rodriguez was one player who came through with a solid effort off the bench. Rodriguez, a transfer from Trenton, had perhaps his finest game of the season Monday, scoring on a reverse lay-up and pulling down four rebounds in the second half.
   "Shamil (Rodriguez) gave a big boost late in the third quarter," Tarrant said. "He gave us some energy when it started getting a little crazy out there."
   The Cardinals led 25-21 at halftime, and Pennington opened the third quarter with a conventional 3-point play by Fernando Cardenas to pull within one. Lawrence then went on its game-breaking 14-0 run — led by four points each from Brackett and Santoro — to open up a 39-24 lead with 1:55 left in the period.
   "In the second half, we hustled more," Tarrant said. "We got some more rebounds and made some shots."
   The game quickly turned ugly, however, as tempers began to flare between the two squads. The Red Raiders, who trailed 41-26 after three quarters, employed an aggressive trapping defense in the final period in a desperate attempt to make defensive stops. The strategy worked, as the Cardinals opened the quarter by missing 10-of-11 foul shots.
   Tarrant said his team realizes it needs to improve its free-throw shooting.
   "We spend a lot of time in practice working on our (free-throw shooting) technique and concentration," Tarrant said. "But we don’t make them in practice, either. That’s affected a couple of the closer games we’ve lost."
   The task of holding on for the win was made even tougher by the fact the Cardinals had to play much of the fourth without their best player. Brackett, who scored six of his 11 points in the first quarter, sat on the bench for extended periods in the second half, nursing a lingering ankle injury he suffered Feb. 6 against Nottingham.
   "Brett (Brackett) had a nice first quarter," Tarrant said. "He has a bad ankle. He turned it in the Nottingham game. It’s very tender."
   The Cardinals used a tight defensive effort to overcome their offensive shortcomings in the final period, limiting Pennington to just 10 points. Still, Tarrant knew his team was going to have to be much crisper in the quarterfinals this past Wednesday.
   "If that (a physical game) happens against Steinert, we’ll be out of the game before it starts," Tarrant said. "It can’t happen against them."
• NOTE: The state tournament seeds were released last week. Tenth-seeded Lawrence will visit seventh-seeded Hopewell Valley in the first round of the Central Jersey Group III sectional tournament March 2. The Cardinals defeated the Bulldogs 47-43 in a regular-season match-up Jan. 20.