ABERDEEN TWP. - The Rumson-Fair Haven boys basketball team has gained a reputation as a team that can light up the scoreboard with the three-point shot, but with that shot failing the Bulldogs in their season-opener Tuesday at Matawan, they relied on the other staple of the program in recent years.

While Rumson's shooting was rusty in game No. 1, its defense was in midseason form and it led the Bulldogs to a 46-37 win over the Huskies.

While most of his teammates had trouble scoring Tuesday, 6-foot-4 junior Ian O'Connor carved up the Matawan defense in the second half. He scored 16 of his game-high 22 points in the second half, including 10 in a decisive fourth quarter for Rumson.

"When the shots aren't falling, we turn to our defense," O'Connor said. "We don't think about how we're going to start making shots. We focus on getting stops. If we play defense like we're capable of, we're usually going to score enough to win."

The two Shore Conference Class A Central rivals entered the fourth quarter of a low-scoring affair tied at 23, at which point Rumson - the No. 3 team in the Shore Sports  Network Preseason Top 10 - came to life. The Bulldogs started the quarter on a 10-0 run, sparked by a pair of drives by O'Connor.

Rumson-Fair Haven junior Ian O'Connor. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Rumson-Fair Haven junior Ian O'Connor. (Photo by Matt Manley)

"We got a couple of shots to go in and that just opened everything up," O'Connor said. "They (Matawan) know we have shooters and they were trying not to leave them open, so once I hit one, then Teddy hit one and Jack hit one, there was even more room to drive."

Senior center Elijah McAllister led the defensive effort by grabbing nine rebounds and blocking eight shots to go with four points. McAllister blocked four shots in the fourth quarter alone.

"I've completely changed how I coach defense with this group," Rumson coach Chris Champeau said. "I used to tell the guys, 'If you care about your family, your town and your team, you'll take a charge.' That's what we were all about. Now, we have this monster in the middle and you almost want to invite them in because then Elijah comes over and bangs."

Senior guards Teddy Sourlis, Jack Solano and Devin Cooper each averaged at least 13 points last season - Cooper as the leader scorer at red Bank Regional - but all three entered the third quarter without a point on Tuesday. All three, however, pitched in during Rumson's 23-point fourth quarter, with Sourlis scoring seven points and Solano and Cooper each chipping in three. Sourlis hit his lone three-pointer of the game to put Rumson ahead, 31-23, before Solano drilled his lone triple to make it 36-27.

During the first half, Rumson shot just 5-for-20 from the field, 1-for-11 from three-point range and turned the ball over 12 times. The shooting woes continued with a 3-for-14 third quarter, including 1-for-7 from three-point range. O'Connor made Rumson's only three-pointers in the first, second and third quarters.

The Bulldogs turned the tables in the fourth by shooting 8-for-11 and turned the ball over only once. The late surge of offense was more than enough to support a defensive effort that held Matawan to 13-for-53 (24.5 percent) shooting for the game and at one point, forced the Huskies into 14 missed shots during the first half. Rumson also blocked 12 shots as a team and forced 11 turnovers.

"The shots will fall or they won't," McAllister said. "The biggest thing for us is to play defense. We didn't shoot well at all tonight and we still got a nine-point win."

Sophomore Darrell Roberts led Matawan with 11 points while senior Reggie Tawiah added nine. Senior Mike Dunne posted six points, six rebounds and three assists, but did deliver a big four-point play to give Matawan a 21-19 lead late in the third quarter - a play that also tagged McAllister with his third foul.

Rumson got an early lift from its first two players off the bench - sophomore  Phil Wheeler and junior Jackson McCarthy. Wheeler scored four points in a span of 20 seconds to give the Bulldogs an 8-7 lead and McCarthy stole the ball and scored his lone field goal of the game to make it 10-9 while the starting unit was struggling to score.

During an undefeated run through the divisional schedule in 2016-17, Rumson's toughest test came on the road at Matawan and the Huskies gave the Bulldogs another challenge on Tuesday in their loud gym that resembled a postseason atmosphere.

"We've had wars here, so I knew it was going to be a grind," Champeau said. "It's our first game, it's there first home game, they're going to be jacked up. We're No. 3 so we're going to be everyone's Super Bowl. So let's play tough 'D' and get the job done."


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