PISCATAWAY – Sparked by a stifling defense and clutch free throw shooting, the Linden boys’ basketball team led from the middle of the first quarter on en route to a decisive 54-45 win over Atlantic City in Sunday’s Group 4 state championship game at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
Linden, which held Atlantic City to an unheard-of 17 points through the first three quarters – including no field goals in the second quarter and just one in the third – captured its second Group 4 state championship in the past three seasons and fifth overall – all of them coming since 2000.
All five of Linden’s group state championships have come under the guidance of present head coach Phil Colicchio, the first four coming in 2000, 2006, 2007 and 2014.
“This never gets old,” Colicchio said. “With the players and experience we graduated last year we wanted to make everyone not look real smart and I think we did. I’ve never been more proud of any team I’ve coached before.”
Sunday’s win was also Colicchio’s 400th, including 19 seasons at Linden and the season before that at Barringer.
“It’s always about the kids,” Colicchio said. “When I think of 400 I think of (past Linden players) Jamaal Tate, Greg Parker, Michael Henderson, Muhammad Wilkerson, Desmond Wade, Darrell Lampley and so many others I don’t want to leave out. I’m a small part of it.”
North 2, Group 4 champion Linden, which improved to 23-5 with its sixth straight victory, was led offensively by junior guard Khalief Crawford, who poured in a game-high 16 points, including the final four of the first half to help give Linden a lead of 20-11 at intermission.
After Atlantic City fouls started to pile up in the second half, the Vikings had no choice but to put Linden on the line in the final eight minutes. The Tigers came through by making 19 of 24 free throw attempts alone in the fourth quarter.
“One key was to cherish the ball and get to the foul line,” Colicchio said. “We’re not a particularly good free throw shooting team, but we made it work.”
Linden finished with 29 total free throws made, including a team-high nine by Crawford.
“We encourage each other when we get to the line,” Crawford said.
“One thing I noticed is that all of our players, after getting fouled, went right to the foul line and couldn’t wait to take their free throws,” Colicchio said. “They were ready.”
An athletic, crowd-pleasing, reverse layup by fellow junior guard Tafari Lowe for the first points of the fourth quarter gave Linden the biggest lead of the game at 16 points, putting the Tigers up 33-17.
Linden senior forward William Phelps finished with 12 points, including two beautiful hook shots.
“You have to do what you have to do to win,” said the 6-4 Phelps, who came on as one of the top inside-and-outside shooting big men in the state this season. Phelps also hauled in a game-high nine rebounds, blocked two shots and had one steal.
Linden sophomore guard Tavon Jones scored all 10 of his points in the second half.
Linden has now won a state championship in basketball in 2014, football in 2014 and basketball in 2016.
The Tigers will next be competing in their fifth Tournament of Champions and their first as the only state champion from a Union County school to be in it.
South Jersey, Group 4 champion Atlantic City, which had a five-game winning streak snapped, finished a fine season at 26-5. The Vikings were led offensively by sophomore guard Raymond Bethea, who was the only player on his team to score in double digits with 12 points.
“It’s a sad day, but I’m still happy for my players, who exceeded my expectations,” veteran Atlantic City head coach Eugene Allen said. “It’s such an honor to make it this far and compete against a program of that magnitude.
“That’s why we scrimmaged Linden this year. They are the measuring stick.”
Atlantic City made four of its five 3-pointers in the fourth quarter when it scored 28 points trying to catch up to Linden. The closest the Vikings got was eight points with about two minutes to go.
“If we would have played in the beginning of the game the way we played at the end it would have been a lot closer,” Atlantic City senior guard Lamar Thomas said. “It was more of us rushing our shots. We rushed too much.”
Linden answered with a 7-1 run, all of its points coming on free throws. Linden made 15 straight free throws at one point in the fourth quarter.
“Linden really plays together and packs it in,” Thomas said. “They just played a little bit better than us.”
“Give Linden credit,” Allen said. “They are a tremendous team. They guard us. I would say it was 60 percent Linden and 40 percent us.”
After the game’s second tie at 4-4, Linden took the lead for good when – off the bench – junior guard Marcellus Livingston hit his first of two consecutive baskets, a bank shot, to put Linden ahead 6-4.
The only points Atlantic City managed in the second quarter were single free throws by Munir Harris early and Ahmad Biggins late. The Vikings missed all seven of their field goal attempts in those eight minutes.
Three of Linden’s first five points of the third quarter came from the free throw line before Jones joined the scoring column with his first six points. His first two points came on free throws.
Jones scored the final four points of the third quarter, both baskets coming in the lane, to put Linden up by 14 for the first time at 31-17.
Harris, midway through the period, netted the only Atlantic City field goal in the third quarter.
“We watched a lot of film on them and knew that they were not a high-scoring team,” Colicchio said. “I said that if we could hold them to 40 points or less that I would find a way to score 41.
“I thought we did a wonderful job of following our game plan.”
After Linden went up by 16, Atlantic City answered with a 7-2 run to cut its deficit to 11. Bethea had a 3-point play in the surge.
Atlantic City sophomore Nazim Derry connected on his first of two 3-pointers to make the score 43-35 before Linden re-grouped and took control one final time.
Linden made only one 3-point basket – by Crawford late in the first quarter – and did not produce one dunk. The Tigers were relentless when it mattered most on the defensive end and executed their offense well enough to get to the basket, get fouled, and make Atlantic City pay from the free throw line.
NOTES: Colicchio, in his 19 seasons at the helm of the Tigers, has now guided Linden to three Union County Tournament championships, eight North 2, Group 4 sectional titles and five Group 4 state crowns.
UNDER HEAD COACH PHIL COLICCHIO:
Linden is 3-7 in Union County Tournament finals.
Wins: 2001, 2007, 2015.
Losses: 2000, 2003, 2005, 2008, 2011, 2013, 2014.
Linden is 8-4 in North 2, Group 4 finals.
Wins: 2000, 2006, 2007, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016.
Losses: 1999, 2003, 2005, 2008.
Linden is 5-1 in the Group 4 state championship game:
Wins: 2000, 2006, 2007, 2014, 2016.
Linden is now 2-1 vs. Atlantic City in the Group 4 state championship game. Linden won 64-39 in 2006 and Atlantic City won 60-54 in overtime in 2013.
The Tigers are now 5-6 overall in group state championship games (5-3 in Group 4 and 0-3 in Group 3) and Colicchio 5-1 – all in Group 4.
Atlantic City was appearing in its third Group 4 state championship game since 2012. Atlantic City defeated Elizabeth 53-47 in the 2012 final.
Linden has a 3-4 record in four TOC events. The Tigers reached their only final in 2006 as a fifth seed and then the next year were halted in the semifinals as the top seed thanks to a half-court shot at the buzzer made by Bloomfield Tech’s R.J. Hall.
Colicchio and his coaching staff, which presently includes Frank Drejaj and Marty Luc, has made Linden the gold standard for public school boys’ basketball in New Jersey since 2000.
GROUP 4 STATE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME AT THE RAC
N2G4 Champ Linden (23-5) 11 09 11 23 – 54
SJG4 Champ Atlantic City (26-5) 09 02 06 28 – 45
LINDEN TIGERS (54):
13-Tavon Jones, sophomore, 2-0-6-10
20-William Phelps, senior, 3-0-6-12
12-Abraham Kromah, junior, 0-0-4-4
2-Fritz Moncion, senior, 0-0-2-2
1-Khalief Crawford, junior, 2-1-9-16
10-Tafari Lowe, junior, 2-0-2-6
4-Marcellus Livingston, junior, 2-0-0-4
3-Joey Krempa, junior, 0-0-0-0
Starters: Crawford, Krempa,
Lowe, Jones, Phelps
ATLANTIC CITY VIKINGS (45):
30-Nazim Derry, sophomore, 1-2-0-8
4-Raymond Bethea, sophomore, 4-1-1-12
5-Aishon Centino, senior, 1-1-2-7
1-Lamar Thomas, senior, 2-1-1-8
11-Ryan Fader, senior, 1-0-0-2
10-Munir Harris, senior, 2-0-3-7
20-Ahmad Biggins, senior, 0-0-1-1
35-Zione Montague, junior, 0-0-0-0
Starters: Thomas, Bethea,
Centino, Harris, Fader.