Going into March like a Lion

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Matthew Solomon is a sophomore who averaged a double-double for The College of New Jersey, including 17 rebounds, five assists and three blocked shots against Rowan in the NJAC semifinals.
Photo by James Knable for TCNJ athletics

By Joe Sager

The College of New Jersey men’s basketball team wants March to come in like a Lion and not like a lamb.

In order to do that, the squad knows it must take charge early, like it did in its drive to the NJAC tournament championship. The Lions became the first team in conference history to pull off three consecutive tournament road wins and the first fifth seed to claim an NJAC title.

It’s a formula TCNJ (20-8) hopes to repeat as it opens NCAA Tournament play against Eastern (20-7) on Friday at Keene State.

“It’s definitely important to set the tone early, especially when you’re away. The crowd and momentum could switch to the home team’s direction in an instant,” Lions sophomore point guard Nick Koch said. “We want to be the aggressor and make teams play our type of game.”

That’s exactly what happened for TCNJ. It shook off a 1-2 finish to the regular season and went on the road to beat Ramapo (81-74), Rowan (79-73) and Stockton (75-72) for its second NJAC title in four years.

“Setting the tone is a very important part of the game. The team that can do that starts off with leverage,” Lions junior Matthew Okorie said. “I thought we struggled with that in some games during the regular season. We plan on continuing to set the tone now. That gives us an opportunity to keep our feet on the gas and keep the other team on the defensive. We know if we start with that lead, it doesn’t stop there. We have to keep going as hard as we can and stopping as many baskets as we can.”

Establishing a strong start was important for the young Lions, who have two sophomores (Matthew Solomon and Koch) in the starting lineup and brought in two freshmen (David Alexandre and Khalid Bakare) off the bench.

“If you had a perfect script for how a young team can win on the road, getting off to a hot start is part of it,” TCNJ coach Matt Goldsmith said. “We shot the ball well over those three games and defended much better than the last couple of weeks. Getting out to those leads was huge. In each situation, it kind of quieted down the crowds, which helped us. It gave us a little bit of a buffer to still make some mistakes, but be able to recover from them quicker.”

The successful road march is a positive sign for TCNJ, too, as it struggled with consistency throughout the year. The team, which has won four in a row, was 2-4 in their previous six contests.

“We told the guys at the beginning of the year that we’re playing a lot of young guys and that could come with some bumps in the road. However, that adversity we face and overcome will be big for us come February and March. We just have to keep moving this thing forward and don’t get discouraged,” Goldsmith said. “Sometimes, you have to go through tough stuff to figure out what works. We’d tell them it’s another lesson we have to learn and make sure this doesn’t come back and bite us in a couple of weeks. The guys did a great job with it and matured quicker than probably our entire staff thought they would throughout the course of the season.”

Having experienced fifth-year players James Beckwith and Jason Larranaga in the lineup has helped the Lions get to where they are, too.

“Those two understand how precious these moments are and how grateful everyone should be to have these opportunities,” Goldsmith said. “The good thing was, the players we brought in, they all won at a high level in high school. They understood how lucky we are. You don’t always have people healthy at the same time and you’re not always playing your best when it matters the most, but these guys are enjoying it and embracing that.”

The team’s depth has been important, too. Koch leads the team in scoring at 17.8 points per game. He went way over that in the NJAC tournament (24.7 ppg), but the rest of the starters all average at or close to double digits and can be a force, too.

“Talent is a part of it, but the main part of it is the trust we have in each and every single guy,” Okorie said. “On any given night, we know it could be anyone who steps up. Maybe it’s not Nick or me to lead the way in scoring, but we trust each and every person. If it’s their night, we are going to feed them the ball.”

“I think that’s what makes us dangerous,” Goldsmith added. “It’s really hard to scheme against us because we have so many guys who score in double figures. In an ideal world, as a coach, this is how our team would look every year. As we know, that doesn’t always happen. It’s been a really enjoyable year to have that. Because of the success we had playing that way, the guys have bought into it, too. The guys have really embraced that mentality that anyone can go for 20.”

The Lions are eager to take their road show to New Hampshire this weekend.

“We trust our coaching staff to prepare us for each game. We’ll be ready,” Koch said. “No matter what we need to do to win, we are ready to take on the challenge.”

“We’re all very grateful that we continue to keep playing basketball,” Okorie added. “This is fun, but we understand we’re not here just to have fun. We’re finding that balance of having fun and being competitive. We’re here to win six games and bring another ring home.”

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