It took until the opening round of the playoffs, but Long Reach is starting to put everything together.
Following an up-and-down regular season, which resulted in a sub .500 record, the No. 7 seeded Lightning walked on to No. 2 Reservoir’s home floor Friday night confident they would walk out with a win, and after 32 minutes the scoreboard read, 58-53, in favor of the visitors.
“We always thought we could put it together for playoffs,” said Long Reach’s Tre’von Morgan after the opening round win. “We just had to keep coming as a team. We’re there. We’re still building it, but we’re there. We got more to show and we got more to bring. It was a team effort.”
It was a low-scoring first half, with the Gators (15-7) getting out to an early 9-6 advantage.
However the Lightning (9-14) slowly started gaining momentum. Pierre Young ended the first quarter with back-to-back buckets, which was followed by a Long Reach 6-0 run to start the following eight minutes. Chad Brown capped off the stretch with an and-1 midway through the quarter to give the Lightning their first lead of the game at 12-9.
Reservoir came back and tied the game at 14-all after a made free throw by Chauncey Upsher with 2:52 left in the half, but Long Reach had the last say before the buzzer sounded.
Emmanuel Ekop connected on 4 of 5 from the foul line in the final two minutes, while Morgan added another bucket with 30 seconds winding down to push the Lightning back up, 20-14, before the break.
“We have started to put it together,” said first-year Lightning coach Andrew Lazzor. “We’re a team full of juniors with a new coach, new program. They’ve started coming together as a group in the practice sessions over the last week, so it was just a matter of time before we put it together. I didn’t know if it would be this year or next year. We have 12 juniors. With 12 juniors you never know. Is it going to be this year or is it going to be next year? Well tonight they came through.”
After combing for just 34 points in the first half, the Lightning and Gators scored 36 points in the third quarter alone.
The two teams traded buckets for most of the period, but Long Reach started pulling away midway through and Morgan’s work on the offensive glass proved crucial in the run.
He started what turned into a 9-2 Lightning advantage after a put-back with 3:35 remaining. Young added back-to-back baskets after Ayomi Akinbinu answered on the offensive end for Reservoir, but Morgan capped off the surge after connecting on the back end of a set of free throws to officially push the lead to double-figures.
“We made some adjustments on the defensive end on how we were covering the high post and then we made some adjustments on the offense and how we were defending ball screens, but that’s their energy,” Lazzor said of the third-quarter swing. “From Tre’von to Chad to Emmanuel, those guys just led everybody in the locker room and kept us all in it.”
Long Reach locked down defensively in the final eight minutes, forcing the Gators into some tough shots, which stalled their momentum early in the quarter.
Reservoir opened up the final quarter with a basket, but were then held scoreless from the field until Aaron Archampong hit his shot with 4:03 remaining.
“The big difference was on the defensive end and rebounding,” Morgan said. “I try my best to rebound. My team does their best to rebound. They pressed us a little bit, but we fought through adversity and that’s what we had to do as a team. We picked each other up and we fought together. That’s all we did.”
The Lightning, meanwhile, scored all but two of their points from the foul line. They were sent to charity stripe 28 times in the fourth quarter, knocking down 16 attempts.
However, the slowed down pace kept the Gators alive. They meticulously chipped away at the deficit to get within four after Judge Payne drilled a three with 2:50 remaining.
Reservoir couldn’t get the go-ahead bucket to fall and free throws allowed Long Reach to keep a firm advantage, but with 29.7 seconds Payne once again kept the win within reach, hitting a three to cut the score, 56-53.
But once again, the Gators couldn’t get their shots to fall in the final seconds, which cemented the Long Reach victory.
“All the pressure that they put, they challenged us on every possession and the guys, to their credit, fought through. They made the tough shots, made the tough foul shots and made key defensive stops," Lazzor said. ”We play ugly on the defensive end and that’s been or M.O the last couple weeks. Last time we played them was games in the 30s. We muck it up as much as we can defensively, offensively is timing and everything else. They wanted it. I didn’t have to say much."
Morgan finished with a game-high 16 points. Brown followed with 15, while Young chipped in with 11 and Ekop added nine.
“In the beginning of the game we made our energy in warm ups, practice we worked hard. The best we worked all year and we wanted to win,” Morgan said. “This is a team we lost to twice and the last time we played them we lost by two, so we had a slight grudge against this team. We had to come out and show that we could win. Practice was excellent. Our defense was excellent and that’s all coach says. He puts it in our head — defense, defense, defense.”
Long Reach's victory knocks the Gators out in the first round of the playoffs for the first time since the 2010-2011 season, and sets up a second round matchup on Tuesday between the Lightning and No. 3 Centennial.
“I felt confident going in to every game because we have the talent. We just have to put it together as a unit that was the issue,” Lazzor added. “So regardless of who is the opponent we really have been playing against ourselves every game this year. [Centennial] is going to be a tough game as well, but our guys are capable of anything though because they work so hard and the game is slowing down for them, which is making it so much easier for us as a coaching staff.”
Long Reach 58, Reservoir 53
LR (9-14): Morgan 16, Chad Brown 15, Young 11, Ekop 9, Shupe 5, Thompson 2.
Re (15-7): Payne 15, Miller 12, Ajimatanrareje 9, Archampong 6, Walker 4, Akinbinu 4, Carey 2, Upsher 1.
Half: 20-14, Long Reach.