BURLINGTON TWP. — When the fourth-quarter buzzer sounded, the Ewing boys basketball team could finally exhale. Star forwards Joel Cineus and Cameron James double high-fived each other, and the Blue Devils waved goodbye to the rowdy fans at Burlington Township who gave the visitors everything that could handle for 32 minutes.

There were many ways to describe sixth-seeded Ewing’s epic 38-34 win Tuesday night at third-seeded Burlington in the Central Jersey Group III quarterfinals.

Paul Jones, who has long been part of Ewing’s proud tradition as a player, an assistant and now a first-year head coach, summed it up perfectly.

“New Jersey state playoffs,” Jones said with a smile. “New Jersey has some of the best basketball, and the playoffs in New Jersey are always great. Being here in this atmosphere was just a testament to that. They have a wonderful fan base, they’re a wonderful team, but playoff basketball, and we’ve been through a lot of tough battles.”

This was a battle with seven ties and five lead changes, and Ewing (17-10) ultimately prevailed when, with less than two minutes remaining and the score knotted at 34, Cineus blocked a shot in the lane and scored a fastbreak layup.

After Ewing forced a turnover at the 1:03 mark, Nijah Manning and Cineus each sunk a free throw in the final 33.8 seconds to finish it off.

“You saw both teams probably cramping up at the end, the gym’s hot, but great players play through tough conditions,” said Cineus, who scored a game-high 18 points. “We’re trained to play through those conditions throughout the season.”

The 6-foot-5 junior exemplified that heart and grit as he corralled several rebounds and blocked shots despite seeing both of his calves cramp up with 3:58 remaining as he got fouled on a floater in the lane.

After laying on the ground for about 30 seconds, Cineus sprung back up and buried a free throw to complete a three-point play and give Ewing a 34-32 lead. He briefly subbed out a minute later as he hobbled to the bench, but he was able to hydrate and work out the cramps before returning.

“I was coming back in regardless, but I just had to fight through it real quick so I could help my team win,” Cineus said. “I was feeling great. I come in the gym every day and I fight, I give it my all. And that scramble play, getting the rebound, the block, the layup, and then finishing the free throws at the end, that’s what it’s all about — state time.”

Jones said he has preached to Cineus all season the importance of consistency and how he brings so much more to the floor than simply putting the ball into the hoop.

“He may have some games where it’s not going offensively, but if you keep that consistent effort and energy on the defensive end, hustling, everything is gonna translate,” Jones said. “The blocking the shots, the going to get rebounds and just being a presence so they don’t take it down low. He was awesome tonight.”

Terrance Traylor added eight points as Ewing’s primary play-making guard, James netted seven, Kristian Thomas chipped in four, and Manning had the other.

Ewing appeared to gain control of the game early as it stayed patient against Burlington’s zone defense and used a 14-2 run late in the first quarter and into the second quarter to seize a double-digit lead and eventually lead by nine at halftime.

But Burlington (21-7), spearheaded by Aaron Ferguson’s 14 points and Quade Hendryx’s nine points, connected for timely baskets and rebounded well to quickly tie the game at 27 with three minutes left in the third quarter.

And then Cineus, yet again, grabbed an offensive rebound and scored a layup on Ewing’s next possession to quiet the crowd.

“We kind of got sloppy in the second half, but we got it together,” Cineus said. “Coach Jones, an amazing coach, got us together, he gave us a game plan and we executed perfectly down the stretch.”

Burlington’s only lead in the second half came with 5:18 left in the fourth quarter when Ferguson hit a falling bank shot, but Cineus’ three-point play quickly put an end to that. The Blue Devils refused to falter in the final moments as both teams ramped up their defensive pressure.

“We kept our composure, and that was the most beautiful thing I saw from our team,” Jones said.

No one expected Ewing to be here after the way the Blue Devils lost five of six at the start of February including its first-round Mercer County Tournament game. Jones refers to the team’s 10 losses as its “10 lessons,” and he has preached all winter that they have three seasons: the regular season, the MCT and, most important, the state tournament.

The final leg of the season, as anyone who follows Mercer County basketball knows, is where Ewing typically finds another gear.

“We’re playing a little bit more as a team,” Jones said. “We’re very unselfish at this point, to the point where I gotta tell them to kind of be a little bit more selfish when we’re trying to get the extra pass, extra pass, extra pass. In the beginning of the season, we weren’t even looking at the extra pass and settling too much. We also have 6-5, 6-5 and a couple over 6-foot coming off the bench. If we attack, especially with the athletes we have, we’re good. We get downhill, we can score, we can dish it to our bigs, our guards can score. We can go once we actually get going.”

Ewing will unexpectedly get to host a sectional semifinal Thursday night against sixth-seeded Freehold Borough, which knocked off second-seeded Nottingham in their quarterfinal.

“I’m very hyped up for it,” Jones said. “I didn’t think we were gonna get another home game. I thought we were gonna actually travel on the road, but we’ve got to go handle business — another team and they’re in the semifinals just like us. They made it there for a reason, so we’ve got to go in, take care of business at home, which we’re familiar with.”

This will be the Blue Devils’ third straight semifinal. And despite what any naysayers believed, they are one home win way from reaching their second straight final after losing to Nottingham in last year’s title game.

“We’re young, so we had to figure stuff out.” Cineus said. “Sometimes adversity hits and you’ve got to find out how to go through the adversity. We got through it, and now we’ve won two state games.”

EWING (38)

Cineus 7-4-18, James 3-1-7, Traylor 2-4-8, Thomas 2-0-4, Manning 0-1-1.

Totals — 14-10-38.


Ferguson 5-4-14, Hendryx 3-2-9, Bingietary 1-0-2, Davis 1-2-4, Satchell 2-0-5.

Totals — 12-8-34.

Ewing (17-10) 10 13 7 8 — 38

Burlington Twp. (21-7) 6 8 15 5 — 34

3-point goals: Hendryx, Satchell (BT).

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