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Espinal, Pioneers shock the Lions

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By Anthony Caruso III | Publisher

Ewing, New Jersey — The College of New Jersey’s men’s basketball now needs a miracle to continue their season. The No. 2 Lions were defeated by the No. 6 William Paterson Pioneers, 95-86, on Wednesday night at Packer Hall in the New Jersey Athletic Conference Tournament semifinal.

The Lions will have to wait until Monday to see if they are receiving an at-large bid. They should know by noon or 1 pm if they received a bid.

Elias Bermudez is seen here playing against a team earlier this season. Bermudez was one of three seniors, who may have played their final game for the Lions (Photo by Jon Lambert/TCNJ Sports Information Department)

Elias Bermudez is seen here playing against a team earlier this season. Bermudez was one of three seniors, who may have played their final game for the Lions (Photo by Jon Lambert/TCNJ Sports Information Department)

According to TCNJ’s Sports Information Specialist Norm Yacko Jr., there are expected to be 17 at-large bids given out on Monday.

“I do think there is a chance,” Lions head coach Matt Goldsmith said. “I think if we would have gotten our 20th win, we would have had a great chance if we had gotten to Saturday’s game win or lose. I think, to be honest, [last night] we would have been in better shape if we had played Jersey City, because they would boost our strength of schedule. I do think there’s a chance. 19 wins is a lot. There are a lot of teams in a similar boat as us. That’ll depend on how conference tournaments go. We have a chance. If the right teams win, like some March Madness craziness, like when a No. 6 seeded team goes and wins the conference tournament, we may still have a chance. We’ll see.”

The Lions fell to 19-7 on the season. The Pioneers improved to 16-11.

TCNJ gave up 59-points in the second half. Goldsmith said it is tough to win games when you give up 59 points in a half.

“They decided to go small a little bit on us and a lot of our guys were in early foul trouble,” he said. “In one position, we just lost our backup center last week to injury. One position we couldn’t get in foul trouble was with our center. We were battling that all night. We had to play guys longer than we wanted to and I think they were beating us off the bounce. They scored 90 something points and had only eight assists on the game. It was really about them getting to the rim.

“I think early on they hit a couple of threes, which is really not what they’re great at. I think that’s what drew our defense out so our help-side (defense) disappeared. I think they took it to us. You work all year to get a bye. One thing you worry about is that team has already been through 40 minutes of playoff basketball, while we have been sitting on our butts for the past week. I thought we played pretty well in the first half and I thought that wasn’t going to be an issue, but you could tell in the second that their energy stayed high and we began to squeeze it too tight. We got a little nervous — and in big moments, like that, it happens — again, credit to them, they did a great job in taking it to us throughout the game. That’s something we’re going to be thinking about. I told the guys weren’t going to see what happens on Monday, as we have a slight chance, but it’s there. We might not be done yet, we’ll see.”

William Paterson will face the No. 1 seed Ramapo Roadrunners on Saturday at 3 pm for the New Jersey Athletic Conference Championship game. The game will be played in Mahwah, New Jersey at Ramapo’s basketball venue.

If this is the end for the Lions, it would mark the end of the College journey for Eric Murdock Jr., Elias Bermudez, and Lance Taylor in a TCNJ uniform.

“They are a really special group,” Goldsmith said. “I’ve told them this since Day One, they are the best leaders that I’ve ever been around. They are vocal, like coaches on the floor. They make sure we have great practices and they bring great energy. They’ll talk in a huddle, just as much as I will. They’ve earned that right to do that. I trust everything they bring to the table. They are a special group. There hasn’t been a winning season on this campus in men’s basketball until their freshman year in like 10-years. They came in here and had four great years. They won a lot of games together. They got to the NJAC playoffs four years in a row, which is really impressive. I’m really proud of that group. Those are going to be three guys, who we remember for a long-time here no matter what happens on Monday.”

Since they arrived on campus, the basketball team increased in the win-loss record all four years. The 19 wins, if this is the end of the season, are the most wins in a season since the 1997-98 season.

“It really comes down to the guys,” Goldsmith said. “We try to put them in a position to succeed. We had a really good year this year. We had a really good year last year and the year before. Yeah, it improved. I think our end goal was to be playing on Saturday, but these guys have bought in since the day I stepped foot on campus. Those three guys brought a winning mentality to this team since the day they stepped foot … I mean EJ and Eric were starting from Day One as freshman. That’s really impressive. In my eyes, all the credit goes to those three guys are special and their character, work ethic — they’re the one’s who brought along the younger guys — I’m really proud of those guys. Big-time credit goes to those guys for that win total.”

Richy Espinal led the Pioneers with a double-double, as he had 26 points and 14 rebounds. He also had four assists and three steals.

“Defense was the issue,” Goldsmith said. “We were trying different things and went zone for a little bit. We probably should have gone back to it at some point. I thought we would be able to keep them in front of us a little bit better. All credit to them, as they did a great job.”

Espinal was one of four William Paterson players, who scored in double-figures. Dapo Badmos added 18 points, while Sean Smith and George Sapp had 15 points each.

The Pioneers had 15 bench points. Domenic Mignone led the bench with nine points.

Randy Walko led the Lions with 20 points. He also had nine rebounds, two assists, one block, and one steal.

“Randy has been great for us all year,” Goldsmith said. “He got second-team all-conference [on Wednesday] for a reason. He’s a really good player. I thought he had some really good looks early that just went back iron. He’s a kid that could go 12-for-12 on a night. Again, I think offensively, it wasn’t an issue. That’s the most we scored against them all year.”

Walko was one of four TCNJ players, who scored in double-figures. Niall Carpenter had 18 points, while Liam Byrne added 13 points and Jordan Glover contributed 11 points.

Murdock Jr. was shutout in the first half. He had five second-half points.

This was the fewest amount of points he had in a game since having five points against William Paterson on January 3rd.

“I think senior year is always a tough year,” Goldsmith said. “In the back of his head, I think he knew that this could be his last one. And, yeah, it was a little out of character for him, but I think they did a good job on him. I also think he’s a kid, who makes the right plays, so when teams key on him, he could have 10 or 12 assists if he’s finding the right guys. I thought he made the right passes and I thought he went to the basket at the right times. I thought he took the right shots, but they all didn’t go in. He’s been amazing for us. He changed the program the day he stepped on this campus. He may not have had his best game [on Wednesday night], but that’s not going to take anything away from his career here.”

The Lions had 28 bench points without key reserve Ryan Jansen, who did not play with a lower-body injury. Byrne led the bench with 13 points.

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