LINDEN – Outside of two, brief one-point deficits, host Linden played out in front the entire game, receiving huge contributions from two seniors off the bench and playing its usual, stingy man defense to keep a high-scoring Newark East Side team at bay.
Linden also made 16 of 18 free throw attempts, which helped tremendously.
However, despite the Tigers producing four nine-point leads and – in between – a game-high, 10-point advantage late in the third quarter, the visiting Red Raiders kept coming back.
Newark East Side pulled to within one again with 1:05 left before Linden closed on an 8-1 run, beginning with a layup from junior Mikey Watkins and six free throws in six attempts that followed.
For the second straight season Linden defeated Newark East Side at home in the North 2, Group 4 state championship game, this time the top-seeded Tigers prevailing 59-51 over the second-seeded Red Raiders in front of Tuesday night’s packed house at Phil Colicchio Court.
Linden, with aspirations of getting back to the Tournament of Champions championship game, captured N2, G4 for the fifth straight year and won its fourth straight to improve to 24-4.
The Tigers will next take on North 1, Group 4 state champion Bloomfield in Thursday’s 7 p.m. Group 4 semifinal at the Dunn Sport Center in Elizabeth. Bloomfield, coached by former Elizabeth mentor Pat Brunner, captured its first sectional title since the Bengals won N2, G4 during future Notre Dame standout and NBA All-Star player Kelly Tripucka’s senior season in 1977.
Newark East Side, which shared the Super Essex Conference’s American Division crown with Newark West Side and then defeated Newark West Side in the Essex County Tournament championship game, saw its season conclude at 25-4.
Linden’s fourth nine-point lead was 50-41 with three minutes left when senior Abraham Kromah connected from the right side for his second 3-pointer. He scored six points off the bench and was also strong on the boards.
Linden’s biggest lead of 10 points was 41-31 near the end of the third quarter.
Following Kromah’s final basket, Newark East Side made another comeback when junior Shamir Johnson, who finished with 13 points, scored from the left side and then freshman Mikah Johnson – on his team’s next offensive possession – grabbed an offensive rebound and put the ball in for his only points of the game, making it 51-50 with just over a minute to go.
Linden, now back in a tight game, did not panic. The Tigers got the ball over half court and slowed things down a bit.
Then junior guard Mikey Watkins took charge, driving strong to the basket for two points, his initial scoring since the first half.
Now with a 3-point lead, Linden immediately got the ball back when Newark East Side was called for an offensive foul. Khalief Crawford, who did not score until the second half, made both free throws for a 55-50 lead.
Newark East Side senior Elijah Olaniyi, who led all scorers with 19 points, scored his and his team’s final point by making one of two free throws to cut it to 55-51 with 24.6 seconds remaining.
Having no choice but to foul, all the Red Raiders could do was watch Linden senior point guard Joey Krempa go to the free throw line two more times and make four more free throws for the game’s final points.
Krempa made a game-high six free throws in six attempts.
In addition to Kromah, huge off the bench for the Tigers was senior sharpshooter Marcellus Livingston, who poured in 13 points, went strong to the basket and also hit a big 3.
Also going strong to the basket for Linden was senior Tavon Jones, who paced the Tigers with 15 points.
“Everyone here has to play and Marcellus and Abraham made big shots for us,” Jones said.
Kromah’s first 3 put Linden ahead 22-15 toward the end of the first half.
Livingston’s 3 was the basket that gave the Tigers their largest advantage.
They both picked up the slack for Crawford, who did not score until the 4:22 mark of the third quarter. Crawford, Linden’s second-leading scorer behind Jones, finished with 10 points.
“Marcellus and Abraham, they made plays,” Crawford said. “We knew East Side was going to come hard at us. We prepared by watching film and we executed plays.”
“Khalief wasn’t his best, while Marcellus gave his best all-around performance since late January,” Linden head coach Phil Colicchio said. “Abraham is key to our team and would probably start on 95 percent of the other teams.”
Linden was 9-for-9 from the free throw line going into the fourth quarter before Jones missed the front end of two with 2:09 to go and then Livingston missed one before Johnson’s basket made it 51-50. The Tigers rebounded to make their final six.
“Our seniors were taking most of the shots, taking them and making them,” Colicchio said. We needed them.”
The Linden breakdown from the free throw line was this: Krempa 6-for-6, Crawford 6-for-6, Jones 2-for-3 and Livingston 2-for-3.
Similar to last year’s game, which Linden won 62-59 in overtime after leading by 14 in the second quarter, when it appeared that the Tigers were about to cement separation, the Red Raiders came right back.
“We’re mirror images of each other,” Colicchio said. “We both play hard and play defense. I tried to make our kids think we were the underdog, because we thrive on that.
“This team has a togetherness which is important. These kids have all grown up together.”
Newark East Side was 8-from-11 from the free throw line, with Olaniyi leading the way with five in his final high school game.
The Red Raiders did not go to the free throw line until the third quarter. Neither team took a free throw in the second quarter.
Another key for Linden was how it prevented Newark East Side’s 6-7 starting senior center Darnell Brodie from becoming a factor. The Seton Hall commit was held scoreless and did not play as much in the second half as he did in the first.
“We had to focus on him and get a push on him in the paint,” Crawford said.
Linden’s first three nine-point leads were 16-7 in the first quarter, 19-10 in the second and 38-29 in the third.
Linden closed the first quarter on a 5-0 run to lead 16-7 heading into the second and also produced an 8-0 run in the third to go up 34-27 following Newark East Side’s second and final one-point lead.
NOTES: The last team to win N2, G4 five years in a row was Elizabeth from 1987-1991, with Colicchio an assistant to head coach Ben Candelino at that time.
NORTH 2, GROUP 4 CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
2-Newark East Side (25-4) 07 13 17 14 – 51
1-Linden (24-4) 06 18 19 16 – 59
2-NEWARK EAST SIDE RED RAIDERS (51):
1-Elijah Olaniyi, senior, 4-2-5-19
24-Mikah Johnson, freshman, 1-0-0-2
10-Shamir Johnson, junior, 3-2-1-13
3-Anas Amos, sophomore, 3-0-2-8
11-Jahid Jenkins, junior, 2-0-0-4
12-Keron Williams, junior, 0-1-0-3
2-Amadu Benbow, senior, 1-0-0-2
20-Darnell Brodie, senior, 0-0-0-0
Starters: Amos, Jenkins,
Johnson, Olaniyi, Brodie.
1-LINDEN TIGERS (59):
2-Joey Krempa, senior, 0-0-6-6
1-Khalief Crawford, senior, 2-0-6-10
5-Mikey Watkins, junior, 2-1-0-7
13-Tavon Jones, junior, 5-1-2-15
12-Abraham Kromah, senior, 0-2-0-6
3-Marcellus Livingston, senior, 4-1-2-13
15-Kyree Rogers, senior, 1-0-0-2
Starters: Crawford, Kempa,
Watkins, Jones, Rogers.