EWING — On a night when the Ewing High senior basketball players beat Nottingham for the first time in four tries, a sophomore was the difference maker.
Cameron James played every bit of his 6-foot-3-plus size in Friday night’s contest, scoring a career-high 19 points and leading the team in rebounds, while Ewing hung on down the stretch for a 67-60 home win.
“We just had to focus on boxing and rebounding,” James said. “That’s something we really lacked in the first half, so in the second half we had to come out and just do it.”
That’s how Ewing (16-1) rallied from a two-point deficit after the first quarter to take the lead in the final two quarters.
Nottingham (11-6) dominated the glass and went 9-for-11 at the foul line in the first half as the teams battled to a 32-32 tie. Defensively, the Northstars used a zone and perimeter trap to make life difficult for Ewing.
The Blue Devils also had some foul trouble in the first half, but the one constant in Ewing’s offense was James’ ability to finish passes to his teammates at the rim and mid-range and play through contact with good free throws. (6-by-7).
“Get the ball up the middle — to me — and to look at the opposite corners, try to open up that zone,” James said of Ewing’s plan of attack.
Seniors Darnell Forrest (14 points) and Kenny Rankin (11 points) also scored in double figures for Ewing, which entered the day tied for first place in Central Jersey III with 38 points.
Because only a team’s top 16 games before Feb. 11 count toward power points, Ewing is essentially the lock for home-court advantage throughout the sectional. The last time that happened was in 2017, and the 16-1 start is the school’s best since Ewing went 18-0 in 2014.
It’s no coincidence that Ewing turned into a Mercer County powerhouse again in Shelly Dearden’s second season, returning to the sidelines. The Hall of Fame coach previously led the Blue Devils to five sectional title games and one state title from 2004-18.
“It’s been great,” James said of his development under Dearden through 31 varsity games. “As a player, it was an honor to learn from her. We just want to get out of here and get better.”
Ewing’s core is largely the same as last season’s 14-9 team, but the Blue Devils are more experienced now and have a deeper roster, with eight players scoring points in just the first half of Friday’s game. They also played disciplined with their individual defense and limited Nottingham to four free-kick attempts in the second half.
“Definitely more chemistry,” James said. “Sort of the same performances, but as you can see, we are working. But yeah, a lot of chemistry. We all know each other and are closed.”
Nottingham, meanwhile, are currently 6th in the same group and in line for a home game in the play-offs.
The Northstars have won four of their last six games thanks to steady growth under another top Mercer coach in Chris Raba and the addition of Trenton Catholic’s TJ Keys two weeks ago.
JP Dickerson (19 points), Keesey (18 points) and Joe Lemley (14 points) led a Nottingham attack with just four scorers, but the Northstars were also without key junior Jordan Rabb in the last three games due to shin splints.
However, it was Ewing who made the critical plays in the second half to secure another victory.
After Lemley connected on his fourth 3-pointer to give Nottingham a 44-43 lead midway through the third quarter, Rankin put Ewing ahead for good with a layup and a layup.
Forrest assisted James on a jumper as Ewing took a three-point lead in the fourth quarter, then James caught a layup by senior Grady Griffin to make it a five-point game.
It was capped by clutch free throws in the final two minutes: five by Forrest, two by Griffin and one by sophomore Joel Sineus.
The Blue Devils are projected to earn the top two seeds in the upcoming Mercer County Tournament, with the No. 1 seed heading into a seismic game featuring Trenton (17-1) at Ewing on Tuesday.
But on Friday, Ewing was focused solely on beating a CVC opponent it hasn’t beaten since 2019.
“Of course, of course,” said James. “We got beat last year (49-43), so of course we had to come out tonight and win the game.”
Raymond 3-3-9, Dickerson 7-5-19, Kesey 7-2-18, Lemley 5-0-14.
Results — 22-10-60.
Forrest 4-5-14, Preston 2-0-4, Sineus 1-3-6, Griffin 3-2-8, Ayindenaba 1-0-2, James 7-5-19, Rankin 5-1-11, Doggett 1-1-3.
Results — 24-17-67.
Nottingham (11-6) 13 19 16 12 — 60
Ewing (16-1) 11 21 19 11 — 67
3-pointers: Lemley 4, Kesey 2 (N), Forrest, Sineus (E).