In past two years, both Rahway and St. Mary’s of Elizabeth have raised Mountain Valley regular season champion banners. In 2007, the St. Mary’s Hilltoppers were crowned champions with a 19-5 record. Last year Rahway went through the conference like a buzzsaw reeling off 19 straight wins before their first loss in the county tournament semi-finals. Two of those 19 wins were against St. Mary’s, but that was in the past.
Second Team All County player Ronnie Sawyer is gone from a Rahway team that could easily go eight or nine deep against their opponent. That depth allowed Rahway’s lone starting junior, Jose Pena-Benjamin, to cause havoc on opposing defenses by scoring at will.
With the lack of depth this year, Rahway will have to look Pena-Benjamin, one of the most underrated players in Union County, to carry the Indians basketball team. The Rahway team had a 6-2 record going into Tuesday night’s game at St. Mary’s.
After a few missed threes by both teams, Pena-Benjamin opened the scoring with a three. He even hoisted a buzzer-beating three to give the Indians a 16-11 lead after the first quarter. The Hilltoppers tried to regroup and forge a comeback to avenge last year’s two losses against the only Group III School in the Mountain Valley Conference.
St. Mary’s lanky 6’6” junior center Ederson Exume was a disruption for the Indians, changing shots and denying second chance opportunities. “Tonight Eddie had his best game of the year,” said St. Mary’s Coach John Moffitt. “He rebounded, he blocked shots and he scored.”
Exume single-handily kept St. Mary’s in the game in the first half.
Rahway started to pull away in the second quarter when Indians’ guard Ladonte Berry-White hit back-to-back threes and picked St, Mary’s guard Tyler Roberson’s pocket, converting on a lay-up for 32-23 lead with 2:30 minutes to play in the quarter. Berry-White dropped 20 for the game.
St. Mary’s broke the momentum on the next possession when Exume had a crowd-screeching jam. A quick steal by Mudia Oswengie allowed the Hilltopppers cut the lead to 38-30 at the half.
The second half of the game belonged to St. Mary’s senior forward Mudia Oswemgie. Oswengie scored 21 points in the second half and had 14 rebounds in the game. The Roselle native at one point scored seven unanswered points.
“Mudia is a fantastic player and he never runs out of gas,” Moffitt said of his senior. “I was real proud of him tonight. He was diving on floor for loose balls and he made his foul shots.”
Oswemgie and Exume each scored 28 points in the game.
Both teams played hard-nose defense. Rahway’s roster is filled with football players and thy brought that style to the hardwood. However, the aggressive defense resulted in 37 trips to the foul line for St. Mary’s and they converted 25 foul shots.
Pena-Benjamin hit a three for a Rahway 56-55 lead. Senior shooting guard Tyler Roberson is one of the reasons why St. Mary’s is having stellar season. Roberson is a scorer, but had an off night against Rahway. Roberson only had three points in the game, but three big points. The Irvington native gave St.Mary’s the lead for good with a three from the left corner to make the score 58-56 with 6:02 to play. Roberson hustled down the court and then drew a charge on the next possession for Rahway.
Shaun Russell came into the game in the second half after sitting on the bench for most of the first. “My job is to play defense and pressure the ball,” said the St. Mary’s senior. Russell was in the face of Group III school guards and defiantly did his job.
“It’s nice to have a senior like Shaun come in and fit right in,” Moffitt said of Russell. The Newark native finished with seven points had a definite intangible impact on the game, allowing the Hilltoppers to pull away to a 72-63 lead late.
Late in the game, Pena-Benjamin was not going to give the game away. The senior guard stole the ball twice with one minute to play which resulted in a basket on one trip and getting fouled on the other. Pena-Benjamin had 14 trips to the line for the Indians, making 11 of his game high 29 points.
With 40 seconds left, Pena-Benjamin made the first foul shot to cut the lead to 75-72 and then missed the second foul shot. Who else but Oswengie came up with the rebound to seal the 80-73 victory for the Elizabeth school.
“It feels great,” said the senior standout. “We never beat Rahway since I was here.” Oswengie transferred to the Elizabeth school from St. Benedict’s Prep. The win puts the St. Mary’s at a record of 6-2, four wins in a row.
Jim Whelan can be reached at email@example.com
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