ERIAL – All that remained were seven seconds. That’s what separated the Eastern Regional High School boys basketball team from a big win on the road against a Timber Creek team that had only lost once all season.
The Chargers had the ball out of bounds on the left side. They wanted to get the ball to Justin Bladen coming around a couple of screens for a game-tying three-point shot, but Zubair Lee wasn’t having any of it.
The 6-foot, 5-inch rail thin junior with springs in his legs and impressive quickness in the open court followed Bladen around the screens and when the Chargers’ guard turned and took his shot, Lee was right there to block it out of bounds. Timber Creek wouldn’t get another chance.
The Vikings, who led by 10 at halftime, held on to post the upset, beating Timber Creek 63-60. The Chargers, who entered the game ranked 13th in the nj.com state rankings, are now 16-2 while a young, improving Vikings squad improved to 11-7.
“I knew he was going to do it; I knew he was going to pull up and shoot it,” Lee said. “I know that kid, I know him personally. I knew he was going to take that game-tying shot and I stopped it.”
That block not only put the exclamation point on the Vikings’ win but also on Lee’s performance. A first-year varsity player, he brings energy and enthusiasm on both ends of the court, and also a measure of calmness when the situation calls for it.
Lee led the Vikings with 29 points, with a three-pointer among his eight made field goals but what was even more impressive was his 12 of 13 from the foul line including 5 of 6 in the fourth quarter. When Timber Creek was whistled for two second half technical fouls, it was Lee who coach Kevin Crawford chose to take the shots.
“He’s a good basketball player,” Crawford said of Lee. “He knows how to play the game and he just finds ways to do the right thing with the basketball and the foul shooting at the end was huge. He is a kid who didn’t play varsity at all last year, but he had a good summer and he’s improved.”
With that improvement has come increased confidence and the ability to rise to the challenge. Timber Creek started 6-7, 255 Demetrius Paynter, 6-6 Austin Green, and the 6-3 Bladen, but Lee went after them on both ends of the court.
“Coaches told me I had to bring all the energy to this game, and I had to do it,” Lee said. “I had to bring the energy for myself and I had to bring it for the team.”
He brought it early and helped Eastern take a 35-25 halftime lead. Lee (11) and senior lead guard Noah Klinewski (17) combined for 28 of those points.
Klinewski, the lone experienced returning varsity player, was superb handling the ball against the Vikings relentless full court press. He finished with 22 points, two assists and two steals. It was his ability to handle the ball and take control of the team in the face of the Chargers' determined second half comeback that was pivotal in Eastern’s ability to hold on for the win.
“We came out strong in the first half and had a good lead going into the halftime, but we knew they were going to come out strong in the second half, we just had to weather the storm and take care of the ball and our guys just did an amazing job sticking together, staying positive and getting the win,” Klinewski said.
It was a tough loss for the Chargers who fought their way back and actually took a one-point lead twice late in the game and had chances to get more but couldn’t get the shots to fall.
“I’m proud of my guys, they fought back,” Timber Creek coach Rich Bolds. “We were down 10 and we made a lot of defensive mistakes in the first half and they fought back.
“I loved the fact that it was a great playoff atmosphere and I told the guys in the locker room that a game like this will benefit you. When I look at the film we’ll go over the situations where this happened or that happened so those things are going to benefit us. But I’m proud of the way they fought back.”
Eastern 19 16 14 14 - 63
Timber Creek 15 10 19 16 - 60
E: Noah Klinewski 22, Colin Ems 6, Zubair Lee 29, Zayd Lee 3, Noah Payne 3.
TC: Jalen Bergen 6, Demetrius Paynter 8, Eric Benjamin 17, Tarheeb Still 2, Shaun Thompson 1, Faison Carter 1, Justin Bladen 10, Kolby Miller 2, Austin Green 13.