Ryan Ems powers Eastern boys' basketball past Rancocas Valley

Eastern’s Ryan Ems scores against Rancocas Valley on the way to their 55-39 win in South Jersey Group 4 quarterfinal action March 1, 2018. Ems finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds.

When Ryan Ems heard the game plan, he was so excited he nearly jumped for joy.

He also was excited because he could jump for joy.

Jumping has been a problem at times for the Eastern junior this season. So has running, stopping, changing direction, and just about everything else that is necessary for success on the basketball court.

“Really frustrating,” Ems said of his on-and-off battles with a pair of balky hamstrings.

The 6-foot-6 Ems looked fit on Thursday, and not coincidentally, so did the Vikings.

Ems generated 19 points with 12 rebounds, as Eastern dominated the paint in an imposing 55-39 victory over Rancocas Valley in the quarterfinals of the South Jersey Group 4 basketball tournament.

Senior guard Matt Cotton added 15 points for fourth-seeded Eastern (20-8), which advanced to face the Shawnee in Saturday’s sectional semifinals.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Yale-bound senior guard Matt Cotton scored 15 points.

Kadian Dawkins scored 12 for fifth-seeded Rancocas Valley (20-8), which shot just 3-for-28 from three-point range.

“We needed to make shots to beat that team,” Rancocas Valley coach Jay Flanagan said. “Eastern played better and deserved to win.”

Flanagan had high praise for his seniors, including Dawkins, Curtis Bright, Naair Campbell, and Darnell St. Clair.

“I haven’t had a core group of seniors I’ve enjoyed coaching this much in years,” Flanagan said.

Eastern advanced largely on the strength of its zone defense and dominance on the boards. With a distinct advantage in height and bulk, the Vikings pounded the basketball inside to Ems and  6-foot-6 senior Onye Okoro (seven points, five rebounds).

“That was the scouting report,” Ems said. “It was exciting to hear that’s what we were going to do. I knew I had to take it to them.”

Eastern coach Kevin Crawford said Ems had a “monster year” as a sophomore but labored at times this season with injuries.

“Physically, he just hasn’t been himself,” Crawford said. “We’ve kind of alternated him and Onye, who also missed some games, and kind of made them one guy. But, today, we threw both big guys out there.”

Cotton also spent some time on the sideline with a back injury. The Yale recruit was excited to see Ems step into the spotlight.

“That lifted me up,” Cotton said. “We fed off Ryan.”

Ems said his hamstring ailments trace to a pelvic injury as a freshman. He’s worked through physical therapy and played well at times, not so well at others.

“We played in the Christmas tournament, and I had zero points,” Ems said. “I was so frustrated I got angry. Then, the next game, I had 16 and scored the game-winner.

“It’s been crazy like that, always worried I wouldn’t be able to play the next game.”

Ems likely won’t be fully healthy until he gets the chance to rest. But there’s no time for that in a playoff run.

“It’s the playoffs, win or go home,” Ems said. “I know I had to put my body on the line.”

Rancocas Valley 10 6 11 12 – 39

Eastern 17 12 10 16 – 55

RV: Kadian Dawkins 12, Curtis Bright 3, Darnell St. Clair 2, Jayvon Laster 4, Naair Campbell 6, Kyle Lundy 5, Javonte Jones 4, Damilola Mosaku 3.

E: Jesse Barbera 8, Matt Cotton 15, Troy Edwards 4, Ryan Ems 19, Onye Okoro 7, Xavier Pina 2.