By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
OCEAN CITY — Sometimes, no matter what you do, a team is just one possession better than you on a given night.
Luciano Lubrano’s desperation 3-pointer with one second remaining hit the back of the rim and bounced off on Thursday night, as Ocean City’s season came to a gut-wrenching end in the South Jersey Group 3 quarterfinals. The sixth-seeded Mustangs hung on for a 52-50 victory and advanced to the semifinals, where they will face 10th-seeded Timber Creek, which knocked off No. 2 Highland, 80-66. The other semifinal features No. 4 Mainland Regional hosting No. 8 Winslow on Saturday at 6 p.m.
Point guard Colton Gargen played the hero’s role for Triton (17-8), hitting 1-of-2 free throws with 5.7 seconds remaining, then getting the rebound on his own miss and hitting 1-of-2 again to give the Mustangs a 52-50 lead. Ocean City’s Jimmy Flukey rebounded the second miss, hurled a pass the length of the court to Luciano Keyes, and Keyes was able to call time out with just a second remaining. On the inbounds play, Lubrano took the pass about five feet behind the arc and let the potential game-winner fly.
But it wasn’t to be, and the upstart Red Raiders saw their sectional championship hopes evaporate.
“Everyone loses games. It is what it is. We just have to move on in life,” Lubrano said after the game.
“You can’t put it on (Lubrano) with one second left and 10 feet behind the three-point line. That’s just not a position you want to be in,” teammate Andrew Donoghue said. “We just let it slip at the end, but you have to give it up to (Gargen) making his free throws. That’s what it’s all about.”
Lubrano almost single-handedly kept the Red Raiders (18-9) in the game through the first three quarters. He scored 12 of the team’s 22 first-half points and finished with a game-high 26, and Luciano Keyes came to life in the fourth quarter to help lead a stirring Red Raiders comeback. Ocean City trailed, 33-22, at halftime as Triton’s Mike Wright drained three 3-pointers and finished the half with 14 points. But the Red Raiders turned up the heat defensively in the third quarter, outscoring the Mustangs 9-3, and when Lubrano nailed a three to start the fourth quarter, Ocean City trailed just 36-33.
“They came out red-hot. We matched their offense a little bit, but we started missing shots and they kept making them. But we came out the second half and just stuck with them on defense,” Donoghue said. “They started missing some shots, and we started making them again. That’s what allowed us to get back in the game, playing tough defense.”
Lubrano said it was gut-check time in the Ocean City locker room at halftime.
“We said we were either going to be down by 19, or we were going to come back and be down by three. It just depended how bad we wanted it and how much effort we were going to give,” he said. “They were getting speeded up and we were causing some turnovers. We came back from 11 points down. We’ve been proving people wrong all season, so that’s a given. We’re used to that. We all just didn’t want it to end.”
Ocean City continued to battle back throughout the fourth quarter. With 3:26 left, Keyes scored on a traditional three-point play to get the Red Raiders within one, 42-41. Keyes again finished off a three-point play with 2:25 remaining to get Ocean City within 45-44. After Triton went up 50-45, Lubrano sank a 3-pointer and Keyes followed that up by stealing an inbounds pass and putting back his own initial miss to tie the game, 50-50, with 55 seconds left.
Donoghue, who finished with 10 points, said he had no doubt his team was going to make a second-half comeback and put itself in position to win.
“It showed who we are. We’re a real scrappy team. We don’t doing anything really special, aside from Lubrano, but we started running and scoring points. Tied with a couple seconds left, that’s a good place to be,” he said. “This year, I don’t think one person thought we would even have a winning record considering the guys we lost last year. But we did great. We came out and won some big games that we weren’t supposed to. I couldn’t be more proud of this team.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN