UNION – Sometimes heart, will, physicality and determination – important things that don’t show up in the scoring agate – turn out to be more important than blocks, rebounds, steals and assists.
Those were the traits Linden had to go by and count on if the Tigers were to get past a much taller Roselle Catholic squad.
Linden doesn’t have players going to Kentucky. The Tigers do not have a lineup filled with 6-9 players – or bigger – that have been nationally ranked. Linden – as a team – is not nationally ranked or even state-ranked the way Roselle Catholic is.
However, before another sold out crowd at Kean University’s Harwood Arena Saturday night it was just a bit more heart, will, physicality and determination that did indeed enable the Tigers to go on and capture their 11th county championship and in the process deny the Lions from still gaining their very first.
Sparked by a first-team all-state performance by senior guard Otis Livingston – who paced the Tigers with 21 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter on a 3-pointer that gave Linden the lead for good and a perfect 10-for-10 clutch shooting effort from the free throw line – third-seeded Linden overcame deficits of eight points late in the second quarter and six midway through the third to dethrone top-seeded Roselle Catholic 60-56 in the thrilling 79th annual boys’ basketball Union County Tournament championship game.
“We knew the key to the game was to just keep playing Linden basketball,” Livingston said. “We had to take good shots, box out, rebound and make free throws.”
Linden, which won its third straight to improve to 18-6, captured the UCT championship for the first time since 2007 and for the 11th time overall. Only Elizabeth with 21 and St. Patrick with 18 have won more titles.
Linden head coach Phil Colicchio, at the helm since the 1997-98 season, had his Tigers in the UCT final for the 10th time, including the third time in a row.
Colicchio was not about to see his Tigers lose in the final for the third straight year, which never happened before.
“We played the game at our pace,” said Colicchio, whose Tigers trailed by four entering the fourth quarter, but by the low score of 41-37.
Linden, which split with Watchung Division champion Roselle Catholic in league play, had to slow the game down. The Tigers could not afford to get into a running game with the Celtics where they could use their height advantage inside.
“We had to relax and grind out possessions and our players did that,” Colicchio said. “They made plays in the second half.”
One of the biggest was the 3-pointer that Livingston nailed to give Linden its second lead at 48-47 and first since the Tigers were ahead 13-11 early in the second quarter.
After a free throw by Kentucky-bound senior Isaiah Briscoe extended Roselle Catholic’s lead to 47-45 – Briscoe led the Lions with 21 points – Briscoe missed the ensuing one.
Linden, with now just 2:30 remaining, came back down quickly after grabbing the rebound. Livingston then pulled up from the top of the key and connected on his second and final 3-point basket of the game to put Linden ahead by one.
Fellow Linden senior Quinton Dixon provided energy off the bench, the burly, left-handed, long-range shooter finishing with seven points, including one 3-pointer. Quinton’s father Waliyy helped lead the Tigers to the 1991 and 1992 UCT finals before graduating in 1992.
“We had to have heart and play physical,” Quinton Dixon said. “In the second half we had to attack the basket, get fouled and make our free throws. That was how the game was won. We had to go get every loose ball.”
“We won this game with our seniors,” Colicchio said.
Roselle Catholic then missed its next shot, with Linden senior guard Juwan Dolbrice getting fouled shortly after. As the Linden faithful roared in excitement, Dolbrice made both free throw attempts to continue what would be a devastating 7-0 Tiger run that kept them in front.
“Briscoe is the best guard in the state, but Livingston has to be the second best,” Colicchio said. “He’s a player, a leader, makes big shots and lives for moments like this.”
Roselle Catholic head coach Dave Boff, who has guided the Lions to two of their three appearances in the UCT final, gave credit where credit was due.
“It was more of what Linden did than what we didn’t do,” Boff said. “Otis is fantastic. We give him all the respect he deserves. He made huge plays in the second half, including that 3-pointer.
“We just thought the Linden kids made big shots. Sometimes it doesn’t work out.”
Another huge Linden basket was a short jumper made by senior Joshua Carter that concluded Linden’s key 7-0 fourth quarter run and put the Tigers ahead 52-47.
Roselle Catholic, which had a three-game winning streak halted and fell to 21-4, did not go down easily in the final minute, with the Lions making nine free throws to get the score to 58-56. Livingston was then fouled again, sending him to the free throw line for the final time. He calmly sank two more foul shots for the final margin.
“The only good thing is that this is not the last game of the season,” said Boff, whose 2013 RC team – also the top seed – was upset by Union in the quarterfinals, but did not lose another game after that, capturing state and TOC championships. Last year’s squad, after falling in the UCT again, won another state championship and just missed getting back to the TOC final.
“This one hurts now, there’s no doubt about it,” Boff said.
NOTES: Linden junior starter Fritz Moncion scored his team’s first six points, all of them coming after he gained offensive rebounds. The latter two of his three inside baskets were tip-ins that were produced while going up against taller RC players such as starters Chris Silva and Pierre Sarr.
Briscoe made three consecutive free throws – after being fouled while attempting a 3-pointer – to close the third quarter and put RC back up by four heading into the final eight minutes.
The Lions received a strong, 12-point performance from junior Matt Bullock, although he did not score in the fourth quarter.
Silva, who seemed out of sorts at times and who had to play with four fouls in the fourth quarter, was limited to just six points – all on free throws.
“Chris was not feeling great, but he gave a good effort,” Boff said.
For only the second time Linden played in a third straight UCT final, with the result coming out the same. The 1973 squad, coached by Wayman Everly, won the UCT championship after Linden lost in the 1971 and 1972 finals.
Linden is the only in-state team to defeat Roselle Catholic this year, defeating the Lions twice now in three tries.
Linden winning the UCT this year is comparable – a bit – to winning a state championship considering the fact that the Tigers had to beat Plainfield, the Patrick School and Roselle Catholic to win the crown.
That’s how strong Union County basketball continues to be.
79TH ANNUAL BOYS’ BASKETBALL
3-Linden (18-6) 10 13 14 23 – 60
1-Roselle Catholic (21-4) 9 17 15 15 – 56
3-LINDEN TIGERS (60):
3-Otis Livingston, senior, 2-2-11-21
4-James Julius, senior, 1-0-5-7
2-Joshua Carter, senior, 3-1-0-9
1-Juwan Dolbrice, senior, 1-0-2-4
35-Quinton Dixon, senior, 1-1-2-7
15-Khalief Crawford, sophomore, 1-1-1-6
20-Fritz Moncion, junior, 3-0-0-6
Starters: Crawford, Moncion,
Carter, Dolbrice, Livingston.
1-ROSELLE CATHOLIC LIONS (56):
0-Nazreon Reid, freshman, 1-0-2-4
10-Chris Silva, senior, 0-0-6-6
1-Isaiah Briscoe, senior, 6-0-9-21
5-Pierre Sarr, senior, 1-1-5-10
13-Matt Bullock, junior, 3-1-3-12
4-Tahir Pretlow, senior, 0-1-0-3
Starters: Briscoe, Bullock,
Pretlow, Sarr, Silva.