LAKEWOOD - Last year, the Pinelands boys basketball team orchestrated a 12-win improvement from the previous season. Taking the next step won't require another double-digit-win improvement, but it will require the Wildcats to do something the program has not done before.

Thursday at Lakewood, against the 10-time-defending Shore Conference divisional champions, Pinelands beat the Piners on the road for the first time ever and cleared a major hurdle to winning its first division title ever. With the 50-39 win, the Wildcats move into sole possession of first place in the Class B South race heading into 2019.

"I'm really proud of our guys," third-year coach Fred Johnson said. "In past years, we might not have found a way to come out on the positive side of a game like this, especially playing a team with Lakewood's pedigree. I think this game shows how much our guys have matured."

Pinelands senior Andrew Schulz glides for two at Lakewood. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Senior Andrew Schulz scored a game-high 26 points to lead Pinelands - his third straight game with 20-plus points. He sat for the final minutes of the third quarter and the first two of the fourth quarter with four fouls and immediately made an impact with six points on three consecutive trips down the floor to stretch his team's lead to 44-37.

"This gives us a lot of confidence," Schulz said of the win. "Our coach has always told us that (Lakewood) has won the division for 10 straight years so it's their division to lose at the end of the day. We knew we had to come in and make a statement to show everyone we're here."

With Schulz on the bench, Lakewood took its first lead of the game, 35-33, on a pull-up jumper by junior Ryan Savoy. Pinelands played its third straight game without junior forward Ryan Skie (ankle), the team's leading rebounder from last year, and the Wildcats had few answers for Savoy on the glass on inside.

 

"We know whoever we put out on the court is going to contribute," Schulz said. "We have a bunch of guys who can rebound, defend, finish near the basket - so we're confident with whatever group is out there because everybody is going to battle."

Savoy, the 6-foot-4 Piners junior, scored 19 points, hauled in 19 rebounds and blocked five shots to get Lakewood back in the game after a slow start. Junior guard Omari Barksdale added 11 points for the Piners, who got back in the game after a slow start thanks to their swarming full-court pressure that forced 12 turnovers in the game but none in the fourth quarter.

"We knew that handling their pressure was going to be a deciding factor in the outcome of the game," Johnson said. "We knew they would make a run and how we handled that was really going to determine the game. I thought we showed some maturity and some growth. In years past, we might have come unraveled, but tonight we responded with some big possessions when we needed them."

Pinelands held the fort with Schulz on the bench, with senior Anthony Diaz knocking down a pair of free throws to tie the game before the end of the quarter, then hitting Andrew Bartlett for a layup that made the score 38-35 early in the fourth just before Schulz returned to the floor. Bartlett also hit the go-ahead free throw to make it 36-35 just prior to his layup.

Diaz finished with 17 points despite hitting just one shot from the floor - which was a three-pointer as he was fouled. The senior guard did work his way to the free-throw line for 22 attempts, of which Diaz hit 14.

Lakewood hurt its chances by shooting just 5-for-17 from the free-throw line for the game.

Schulz put up 17 of Pinelands' 29 points in the first half alone to ignite another high-scoring output for the senior guard. After three games, Schulz is now averaging 24.3 points - the sixth-best mark in the conference in the early going.

During its turnaround season in 2017-18, Pinelands went 15-11 and nearly chased down Point Pleasant Boro for the Class B South title. Although they came up short, the Wildcats went from 3-21 in 2016-17 to the cusp of the program's first division championship.

This year, Pinelands has set the pace, and as the last remaining unbeaten B South team - and one with a slew of returning starters, no less - the Wildcats are now the de facto team to beat in the race for the division championship.

"We have talked about that a lot," Johnson said of his team's new stature. "We went into last year coming off winning three games, and there was no target on our back. I think a lot of people look past us, although I know we played a lot better than a three-win team two years ago. But because of that, we were able to fly under the radar. This year, there is a target on our back, so we are going to get everybody's best effort, and we have to be ready."

Lakewood, meanwhile, should not be counted out, either. The Piners lost their first meeting with Point Boro last season and rallied to tie the Panthers for the B South co-title with an 11-3 divisional record. The two teams will meet again on Jan. 25 at Pinelands.

"The idea of winning a division championship is not on our minds right now," Johnson said. "As cliche as it might sound, we are really just trying to focus on one day at a time and get better every practice and every game."

 

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