GARDINER — The first round of the return of the Cony/Gardiner rivalry on the hardwood goes to Cony, but by the slimmest of margins.

T.J. Cusick scored on a drive to the basket with 24 seconds left as Cony survived a see-saw sequel to the first meeting last month at Cony with a 60-59 win at John A. Bragoli Gym on Tuesday.

Cusick finished with a game-high 23 points and nine rebounds in a game that featured eight ties and 15 lead changes. Matt Murray added 10 points for the Rams. Jordan Lamb paced Gardiner with 17 points and nine rebounds while Brian Dunn chipped in with 13 points.

Last month’s game, the first between the schools since 2007, also came down to the final buzzer before the Rams emerged with a 54-52 win.

“It’s very special,” Cusick said. “I’ve never played here in high school. It was a great game. I’ll always have a memory of playing here.”

“T.J. Cusick showed up like a really good senior tonight and finished,” Cony coach T.J. Maines said. “He was aggressive. These guys have played against each other growing up and on travel teams and everything, and this is their first time in high school being able to compete and their first time ever playing in this gym. And they’re seniors. They want to have a good memory for their only time playing here, and what better memory could they have?”

Gardiner (5-5) held leads late in the second and fourth quarters, only to see Cony (5-6) come storming back.

“We made some things happen at the end of the quarters, which was great,” Maines said. “Guys could have given in when we were down five, but I thought our guys hung tough in the end and got a couple of stops and had the wherewithal to take a charge.”

Murray took what may have been the game-changing charge for the Rams as they started to claw back from a 59-54 deficit.

Jordan Roddy hit a jumper to pull the Rams within three with 2:02 left. On Gardiner’s next possession, Murray stepped in front of Lamb as the 6-foot-4 senior tried to drive near the baseline and drew an offensive foul, Lamb’s fifth, with 1:43 to go, much to the chagrin of Gardiner coach Jason Cassidy and the home crowd.

“It wasn’t just losing Jordan on the play. He made the shot, got fouled and he would have made the foul shot,” Cassidy said. “It feels like it gives them the game at that point. That was the best game our kids played this year in terms of defensive execution.”

The Tigers still had a chance to close the game out as Dunn forced a turnover, but they were whistled for another offensive foul with 1:14 remaining. Dunn was fouled in the rebounding action after a Cusick miss with 56 seconds remaining, but missed the front end of a one-and-one. Murray then pulled the Rams within a point with a short runner with 44 seconds left.

After a Gardiner turnover, the Rams called timeout and set up an isolation play for Cusick on the right wing.

“Coach called out the play, I happened to be the first option and everything fell into place,” Cusick said.

The Tigers took a timeout and set up for the last shot, an Eli Fish 3-pointer from the right corner that was long. The bounce of the rim caromed to the other side of the court, where the ball went off a Gardiner player in the rebounding action in front of the Gardiner bench. Cony’s subsequent inbounds pass was deflected, but the buzzer sounded in the scrum to recover the loose ball.

The first quarter set the back-and-forth tone, with Cusick acting as the aggressor for the Rams and Gardiner successfully handling Cony’s press and slowing down the tempo when it could.

“Defensively, this was not a good night because we couldn’t pressure,” Maines said. “They got by it in two seconds, which is very good coaching and very good guard play from Dunn and (Isaiah) Magee and others. They took us out of what we like to do.”

“Not many people have had that luck with them and their style of play,” Cassidy said. “We tried to slow it down to our pace and I think it did work.”

Dunn sparked a 7-0 Gardiner run with a 3-pointer, a jumper and a steal that led to a Camden Gregory layup with 1:33 left in the first half. Cusick, who scored 13 in the first half, Carter Cleaves and Murray all hit 3-pointers to pull the Rams into a 29-29 tie at the half.

“We were all trying to get in the groove,” Cusick said. “It’s tough to play here — great fan base — so we just wanted to set the tone early and get out and run.”

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @RAWmaterial33

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