Phil Anastasia: At gut-check time, Garnets respond

Posted: January 14, 2011

Nobody held up a sign that read "Key Point in the Season."

The coach said even less than usual in the huddle between the third and fourth quarters.

"I wasn't going to be all rah-rah," Haddon Heights coach Mike Ricci said. "I wanted to see if somebody would step up. We needed leadership. We needed somebody to take over."

It was a Thursday night in the middle of January. It was the eighth game of the season, the fifth in Colonial Conference play.

It wasn't late. But it wasn't early, either.

Haddon Heights was wobbling. The Garnets were coming off a devastating, 71-69 loss to rival Collingswood on Tuesday night in a game in which they held a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter.

Plus, the team lost more than a game that night. Haddon Heights also lost junior forward DaVon Jones, its third-leading scorer, to a broken wrist.

Now, Haddon Heights was locked in a pitched battle with host Sterling, which used a big third-quarter rally to seize the momentum and take a 41-36 lead.

What Ricci left unsaid was still understood: Haddon Heights needed somebody to keep the season from careening out of control.

Enter Mike Pitts, smooth senior.

Enter Brandon Joyner, slick sophomore.

Together, the two guards combined for 22 points in the fourth quarter as Haddon Heights rallied for a 64-56 victory over Sterling.

"I was curious to see how we would respond when we got down by five and seven points," Ricci said after his team improved its record to 5-3 overall and 3-2 in the Colonial Conference.

"I wanted to see if they put their heads down or if they could fight back. Boy, did they fight back."

Pitts, the Garnets' leading scorer, had been frustrated by Sterling's defensive pressure and had just two points in the first half, just five after three quarters.

But the 6-foot athlete shook loose for 11 in the fourth quarter, including a crucial three-point jumper that cut Sterling's lead to 50-47 just when the Silver Knights looked on the verge of pulling away.

"I had to find a way to get open," Pitts said.

Ricci saw his senior rise to the moment.

"Sterling was taking him out of the game," Ricci said. "He had to fight through that. He started to command the ball in the fourth quarter."

The 5-9 Joyner also scored 11 in the fourth quarter, finishing with 22. Joyner buried the biggest shot of the game, a three-pointer that gave Haddon Heights a 58-54 lead with 2 minutes, 14 seconds left.

"We hung together and played as a family," Joyner said.

The Garnets won 24 games last season, but lost some scoring and leadership to graduation. This is a different team, with lots of talent, but without consistency.

It's looking like a crazy year in the Colonial Conference. Haddon Heights can beat anybody in the league (so can Sterling). The Garnets also can lose to just about anybody (so can the Silver Knights).

This was a big win, on the road, coming from behind, on the heels of that gut punch Tuesday night. The Garnets found a way thanks to two guards who saw a sign that nobody held up and heard the words their coach never said.

"It's been a roller coaster so far," Ricci said of a season that wobbled but stayed on the rails.

Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223 or

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