PISCATAWAY – Underdog Shawnee – without a senior in its starting lineup – was executing a nifty backdoor pass, hitting some 3s and preventing Linden from getting into a flow offensively to produce the game’s first lead of any kind.
That kind of performance kept the Burlington County Renegades more than just in the game for the first 32 minutes.
Needing to rally a bit to get itself straightened out, defending champion Linden managed to force a deadlock at intermission.
Then the Tigers made their move in the third quarter, grabbing rebounds and scoring inside. Consecutive 3-point field goals hit by wide open looks from Mikey Watkins and Khalief Crawford provided Linden with its first double-digit lead.
Although Shawnee, which entered the contest with four more wins than Linden and on a 14-game winning streak, fought hard to cut the deficit to four early in the fourth quarter, Linden’s athleticism and ability to not miss from the free throw line was too much for the Medford squad to overcome.
Scoring 16 points in each of the last three quarters after trailing by four following the game’s first eight minutes, it was a very sweet 16-point victory North 2 champion Linden pulled off by defeating South Jersey champ Shawnee 57-41 in Sunday’s boys’ basketball Group 4 state championship game at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
LINDEN IN THE GROUP 4 STATE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
UNDER HEAD COACH PHIL COLICCHIO:
2017: Linden 57, Shawnee 41 – at Rutgers
2016: Linden 54, Atlantic City 45 – at Rutgers
2014: Linden 66, Trenton 53 – at Rutgers
2013: Atlantic City 60, Linden 54 (OT) – at Rutgers
2007: Linden 63, South Brunswick 54 – at Rutgers
2006: Linden 64, Atlantic City 39 – at Rutgers
2000: Linden defeated Bridgewater-Raritan
Linden repeated as Group 4 state champions for the second time and first time in 10 years. The Tigers have now won Group 4 three of the last four years and have been in the final four of the last five.
Crawford paced all scorers with 17 points, Watkins poured in 16 in his first Group 4 final and Linden standout junior Tavon Jones added 13, all after the first quarter.
Junior forward Dylan Deveney was the only Shawnee player to score in double figures, netting 12.
Shawnee concludes a fine season at 29-3, while Linden won for the sixth straight time to improve to 26-4.
Once again – for the sixth time since 2000 – the Tigers will be competing in the Tournament of Champions. Expecting to get the No. 2 seed behind Non-Public, B state champion Patrick School, Linden’s ultimate goal of winning the TOC for the first time is two wins away.
Shawnee, behind 3-point baskets hit by junior Sean Heine and Deveney and an inside game sparked by crisp, set passing, built an 18-11 lead with just under six minutes left in the first half.
Linden had to work harder to make up the deficit and began when Jones produced a conventional 3-point play for his first points.
A layup by Jones tied the game for the second time, as Linden went on a 14-7 run to get the game even by halftime at 25-25.
After two ties, three Shawnee leads and two by Linden in the first half, the Tigers came out and began to take control once the third quarter commenced.
Senior starter Kyree Rogers began the second half by executing Linden’s third conventional 3-point play – Crawford had the first – and then after a layup by Crawford and the back-to-back 3s by Crawford and Watkins, Linden began the quarter on an 11-1 run.
Shawnee did not hit a field goal in the third quarter until Deveney hit his second and final 3 with just 2:44 left in the period.
Linden did not come out with the same fire when the fourth quarter started and Shawnee took advantage. Baskets by juniors Daevon Robinson and Dean Noll brought the Renegades to within 41-37 with 5:33 remaining.
Linden missed its first five fourth-quarter field goals.
However, the Tigers then got back to the free throw line and made two more, with Jones hitting both to get the lead back to five. Linden, which has done a fabulous job at the free throw line its last few games, was a perfect 9-for-9 from the charity stripe vs. Shawnee.
Crawford and Watkins followed with inside baskets and then Crawford scored inside again to put Linden ahead by 14 at 51-37 with less than three minutes to go.
Game. Set. Match.
“I thought we did a really good job defensively,” Linden head coach Phil Colicchio said.
In now his 20th season at the helm of the Tigers, Colicchio has led Linden to seven Group 4 state championship games, with a record of 6-1 and the only loss coming in overtime.
“We weathered the storm in the first half and got to them in the second,” Colicchio continued. “I thought long passes broke the game open for us.”
Crawford hit two big 3s in the third quarter and was also able to contain Shawnee’s big man in the middle, Robinson, who was limited to five points.
“My teammates kept finding me,” Crawford said of his position to hit open long range shots. As for guarding players taller than him, he said, “I’ve been fighting bigs all year long.”
After getting back to within four at 41-37 early in the fourth quarter, this is how Shawnee head coach Joe Kessler saw it, “we had a couple of bad possessions and did not execute and that put us back in a hole.”
Colicchio said to that: “we had to stick with doing ball screens and making them decide to come guard us. That allowed us to make good runs to the rim.”
“We always have the mindset that with the team we have we can win on the court,” Deveney said.
“We broke down defensively,” Robinson said. “It was more of our mental game than anything else.”
Shawnee had the look of a very strong challenger early on, which is something a non-senior laden team can build on for next season.
“We do not have the most talent, but together as a team we proved to be very good this year,” said Kessler, who previously guided Shawnee to the 1992, 1995, 1996 and 2001 Group 4 state championships and the 2007 Group 3 title, in addition to the 1992 TOC crown, with Shawnee being one of only four public schools to win the event.
Colicchio thinks his Linden Tigers should be defined by what they accomplish the second Sunday in March at Rutgers rather than afterwards in an event – the TOC – he is not as big a fan of as when it commenced in 1989.
“We’re Group 4 state champions again and this is how we should be judged,” said Colicchio, who guided Linden to its first state championship in 2000, his third year at the helm. “At first I thought the TOC was a great thing for New Jersey basketball, but I’m not so sure now. Why should one team only go home happy?”
Non-public schools have captured 24 of the first 28 TOC championships.
Patrick School will be the favorite to win the 2017 crown based on its success against Linden this year, beating the Tigers twice in three tries and by double digits both times.
Last year Linden reached the TOC final for the second time and never had a lead in falling in Trenton to favored St. Anthony 55-38.
“We still enjoy the (TOC) atmosphere, the media attention and all that,” Colicchio said. “We will continue to prepare and play our best.”
Here’s what was also said in the interview room following Sunday’s Group 4 final:
Tavon Jones, Linden junior: “It’s not just about me. Our seniors are excellent and the guys we have off the bench are. It’s never about me carrying our team.”
Mikey Watkins, Linden junior: “It’s about us playing our game and sticking together.”
Joey Krempa, Linden senior: “The big thing is buying into what Coach Colicchio, Coach (Anthony) Drejaj, Coach (Marty) Luc and the other coaches say. When we scouted Shawnee we knew we needed to look out for their screens.”
Shawnee head coach Joe Kessler: “We got up on them, they took the lead and then we fought back. Their experience helped and they kept their composure.
“Now our guys know what it takes. It will be tough again because everyone will be gunning for us. Nothing is guaranteed. They know they will have to work just as hard to be fortunate enough to get back here.”
When Linden was reeling and trailing on the scoreboard in the first quarter, one of Colicchio’s first substitutes was inserting Luis Rodriguez.
The junior guard immediately made an impact, with his key contribution including 2-for-2 from the free throw line and a rebound once he entered, in addition to producing two second-quarter steals when Linden rallied to tie the game for the second time.
Linden head coach Phil Colicchio on contribution made by substitute Luis Rodriguez: “I thought Luis kept us in the game in the first half. He proved that you don’t have to make 16 moves. He just put his head down and went. Marcellus Livingston was that kind of player for us last year (against Atlantic City) when he came in and made some big shots.”
NOTES: Linden is now 6-6 overall in group state championship games (6-3 in Group 4 and 0-3 in Group 3) and Colicchio now 6-1 – all in Group 4.
Linden lost the 1958, 1978 and 2013 Group 4 finals and the 1953, 1954 and 1982 Group 3 finals.
Linden is 5-5 in its first five Tournament of Champions competitions, including 0-2 in the final.
The TOC is scheduled (weather permitting) to commence with the quarterfinals Wednesday at Pine Belt Arena (Toms River North) and continue with the semifinals at Pine Belt Friday. Times for both days are 5:30 and 7:30 p.m.
The final is set for Monday, March 20 at Sun National Bank Center in Trenton, 8:15 p.m.
UNDER HEAD COACH PHIL COLICCHIO:
Linden is 6-1 in the Group 4 state championship game:
Wins: 2000, 2006, 2007, 2014, 2016, 2017.
Linden is 9-4 in North 2, Group 4 finals.
Wins: 2000, 2006, 2007, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017.
Losses: 1999, 2003, 2005, 2008.
Linden is 3-8 in Union County Tournament finals.
Wins: 2001, 2007, 2015.
Losses: 2000, 2003, 2005, 2008, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2017.
BOYS’ BASKETBALL GROUP 4 STATE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME AT RUTGERS
SJ CHAMP Shawnee (29-3) 13 12 08 08 – 41
N2 CHAMP Linden (26-4) 09 16 16 16 – 57
SHAWNEE RENEGADES (41):
24-Sean Heine, junior, 0-2-0-6
21-Patrick Kernan, sophomore, 3-0-1-7
31-Dean Noll, junior, 3-1-0-9
23-Daevon Robinson, junior, 2-0-1-5
44-Dylan Deveney, junior, 3-2-0-12
14-Kane Feudtner, junior, 1-0-0-2
Starters: Heine, Kernan,
Noll, Robinson, Deveney.
LINDEN TIGERS (57):
5-Mikey Watkins, junior 4-2-2-16
1-Khalief Crawford, senior, 5-2-1-17
13-Tavon Jones, junior, 5-0-3-13
15-Kyree Rogers, senior, 1-0-1-3
2-Joey Krempa, senior, 0-0-0-0
3-Marcellus Livingston, senior, 3-0-0-6
4-Luis Rodriguez, junior, 0-0-2-2
Starters: Watkins, Crawford,
Jones, Rogers, Krempa.