You can call juniors Shawn Lyght and Darrius Phillips substitutes, non-starters or reserves. You can go ahead and call them bench guys if you prefer.
But know this. At some point soon after Seton Hall Prep’s five starters are called out in the pre-game introductions and conduct the tipoff, head coach Kevin Williams is going to be calling both Lyght and Phillips for important duty.
Just as they had against Caldwell in the semifinals and Arts in the quarters, Lyght and Phillips charged off the bench with a shared sense of resolve and, in this case, some serious solutions for their team’s initial problems against Newark Central’s suffocating pressure.
“We like bringing those guys off the bench. I think we’re just as strong, if not stronger in different way,” Williams said. “It’s a good problem to have.”
Lyght and Phillips both contributed heavily to a first quarter that could have gotten away from the turnover-prone Pirates and were key contributors down the stretch as they helped top-seeded Seton Hall Prep rally in the last 1:45 for a 60-55 victory over third-seeded Central in the 75th Essex County Tournament final Saturday afternoon at Essex County College in Newark.
That was Seton Hall’s third victory this season over Central, all of them similarly close, fiercely competitive battles.
Lyght, more known for his lacrosse skills, finished with a season-high 18 points, junior Jackson Bleecker scored 14, senior Nick Dunneman had 11, and Phillips scored just two points, but chipped in with seven rebounds, five assists, three blocks and a big fourth-quarter steal to send the Prep (20-3) to its 11th straight victory and its first ECT crown since 2016, and its 18th overall.
Lyght scored seven points in the fourth quarter, five in the last 1:33 on 5-of-6 shooting from the foul line. He forged a 53-51 lead with two, made it 56-51 with one with 47 seconds left, and opened a 60-53 lead by sinking two more with 13 seconds to go.
Phillips, in that fourth quarter, was a menace in the lane for Central, coming up with three rebounds, two blocks, two assists and a steal (and assist) that led to Bleecker’s breakaway layup for a 55-51 lead with 1:06 to go.
Senior guard Zahree Brown scored a game-high 22 points, and senior forward Jakai Irby recorded 15 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks for Central (19-5), which was after its third ECT crown and first since 1973.
“They’re always big for us, and they came in today and made an immediate impact. And we have 100-percent faith in them at all times,” Bleecker said of Lyght and Phillips.
That faith was strong and all-encompassing and maybe the only thing that kept Central from pulling out to an unsalvageable deficit for Seton Hall. The Prep fell behind, 7-0, in the first 2:26 and committed eight turnovers in that opening quarter. Yet the Pirates trailed only 17-13.
Why? Because not only did panic or anger not show on the faces of Williams’ guys, but an unmistakable display of camaraderie and support ensued. Amid all those errors, Seton Hall saw six players score in that first quarter, including Lyght and Phillips, and all five of its field goals were assisted.
“It was all about keeping our heads straight. Every play, every turnover, every bad thing that happened, we picked each other up and we made sure we all came back,” Bleecker said. “We tried to keep a straight head. I know I was off in the beginning, but Coach kept saying, ‘Next shot, next shot.’ “
It wasn’t just good passing and a continued commitment to off-ball movement that kept Central from running away in the first quarter. Every time the Pirates coughed up the ball, they hustled into defensive positions as quickly as possible in an effort to minimize the damage. Which they did.
“The score should have been a little different. We were up, 7-0, and I thought we should have been up 14, 15-0. We forced a lot of mistakes, but we made some mistakes ourselves in bad situations, and it cost us,” Central head coach Coach McCray said.
“We just needed to keep hustling and get boards. That’s what wins championships; rebounding and defense,” said the 5-11 Dunneman, who finished with eight rebounds, five assists and three steals to go along with his 11 points. The outstanding wide receiver from the football team showed particular toughness under the boards at either end in the third quarter.
“Our coach always says basketball is a game of runs and we just had to make our run after them. They’re gonna make some plays because they’re a good team, as well,” he said. “But we had to keep it moving and just find a way.”
The way, at least partially, came via that Seton Hall bench, where Lyght and Phillips were both raring to go.
Phillips hit a short jumper off a pass from Dunneman to tie the game at 9-9 with 2:59 left in the first quarter, and then Lyght scored inside off a feed by Phillips with 1:55 later to interrupt a 6-0 Central spurt and bring Seton Hall to within 15-11. Lyght also had a rebound and forced a turnover by stepping in for a charge in that opening quarter; Phillips had two rebounds, one assist and a block.
“W know we have a talented squad and we know we all can’t start. Darrius and I know what we need to do to help our team win. We’re not gonna be upset that we’re not starting,” said Lyght, who is verbally committed to powerhouse Notre Dame for lacrosse as a defenseman.
“We played Central twice already and both games were close; we knew this was gonna be a dogfight the entire way through,” he said. “We both were just ready. We got ready for this moment and we didn’t back away from it.”
Neither did Central.
The Blue Devils trailed, 41-33, after three quarters, but then reapplied the pressure that made the first quarter so successful and owned the first four minutes of that last quarter behind Irby’s rugged work under the glass and Brown’s slashing drives and pull-up jumpers.
He scored scored six points and Irby had three and also four rebounds in those four minutes as Central reclaimed the lead, 46-45.
Bleecker scored inside off a pas from Lyght to put Seton Hall ahead, 47-46, with 3:41 to go, but Brown answered with a 3-pointer from the left corner off a pass by Hazir Lee for a 49-47 lead just 21 seconds later.
Bleecker struck again, this time with a 3-pointer in the left corner off a pass by Myles Thomason for a 50-49 Seton Hall lead with 2:27 remaining. Central seized its final lead 29 seconds later with a putbck from Irby for 51-50.
“We battled back and that’s what I like about this team. They didn’t die,” McCray said. “Last three minutes of the third quarter I thought we looked a little discombobulated, but we pulled it back together.
“I’m proud of these guys. It’s the highlight of the season so far. We haven’t been here to the final in 49 years,” he said. “I told them that means you’ve done something in four careers while you’re at Central. And it’s not over. We’ve got other highlights that we can make. We just have to refocus and get back to work.”
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism