Hillside almost crashed the party last year.
This time there was no almost.
The Comets are here and part of the final eight teams alive and in contention for this season’s county championship.
For those Union County fans – and you know who you are – who argued that Hillside was no good, well, you’re not looking too good right now.
If Hillside is the Rodney Dangerfield of the 38th annual Frank J. Cicarell girls’ basketball Union County Tournament, the “we-never-get-any-respect” Comets will certainly take the compliment and move on.
“We’re never in the spotlight or get the recognition,” fourth-year Hillside head coach Sjocquelyn Winstead said. “We have limited players and resources, but in spite of it all our players – led by our coaching staff – go out there and compete.”
Hillside, with a record of 14-4, will take on defending champion GL, with a record of 17-4 that includes a seven-game winning streak, in the first of Thursday night’s two quarterfinal clashes at Roselle Catholic.
The teams did not face each other this year or last.
UCT QUARTERFINALS THURSDAY NIGHT
TOP SIDE OF THE BRACKET AT RAHWAY:
13-Plainfield (5-20) vs. 5-Linden (14-9), 6 p.m.
8-Oak Knoll (19-3) vs. 1-Roselle Catholic (19-3), 7:30 p.m.
BOTTOM SIDE OF THE BRACKET AT ROSELLE CATHOLIC:
11-Hillside (14-4) vs. 3-Gov. Livingston (17-4), 6 p.m.
10-Scotch Plains (10-12) vs. 2-Cranford (15-7), 7:30 p.m.
The 11th-seeded Comets, who repeated as the Union County Conference’s Valley Division champion – winning the division last year at 14-0 and this season at 12-0 – came back to knock off sixth-seeded Union 59-54 Monday in a first-round game at RC. Hillside won the fourth quarter 18-9 to give the Valley Division a big win over a Watchung Division squad.
“We focus on one game at a time,” Winstead said.
The Comets were sparked by the play of standout sophomore backcourt performer Yasmine Robinson-Bacote, who poured in a game-high 24 points. Sophomore Afeni Richardson added 13 points and senior Jasmine Lombard 12.
Winstead, a former Comet player and 2005 Hillside graduate, said that Robinson-Bacote and Lombard are averaging a team-high 15-16 points a game.
In the first round last year – also at RC – 15th-seeded Hillside gave second-seeded and eventual finalist Cranford all it could handle before falling by the small margin of 61-55.
“That close game last year gave us ammunition for this year,” Winstead said. “Against Union we left it all on the court.”
Hillside trailed Union by four entering the final eight minutes.
“It came down to us playing as a team and playing defense,” Winstead said. “Yasmine stepped up and held her composure.
“Everybody got involved.”
If Hillside is to advance to the semifinals, the Comets will have to knock off the team that finished third in the Watchung Division this season. GL, the No. 3 seed, is seeking to reach a third straight county championship game.
“We understand that GL is highly-ranked and we know we’re underdogs coming in,” Winstead said. “Like Union, we’re two divisions below them.
“Defensively, we know they have a lot of dynamite players in the post and they also have experience. At the same time we are disciplined and will give it everything we’ve got.”
Although Hillside played just one conference-crossover game – a 51-46 injury-plagued loss at Johnson on Feb. 5th that snapped a nine-game winning streak – the Comets have benefitted greatly from playing bigger out-of-county teams such as Piscataway, Perth Amboy and Franklin early in the season. Hillside lost to all three, coming the closest against Piscataway in a season-opening 46-40 home setback.
“If we had the team we have now when we played them we could have been more competitive,” Winstead said.
Hillside is in the quarterfinals for the first time since the 1990s.
“We’re trying to develop a winning atmosphere,” Winstead said.
Dropping down to the Valley Division last year, Hillside finished 20-6 a year ago and the past two seasons has produced a combined 34-10 mark so far.
Hillside has won 11 of its last 12 games after a 3-3 start in the month of December.
The second game at Roselle Catholic features 10th-seeded Scotch Plains vs. second-seeded Cranford. In Watchung Division play, Cranford won at Scotch Plains 59-39 on Jan. 11 and then the Cougars downed the Raiders 50-29 at home on Feb. 5.
Cranford senior Jess McCoy reached 1,000 career points in the first game, while the day before in a 60-50 division home loss to Linden, Scotch Plains senior Taylor Sebolao accomplished the grand feat.
Cranford is only 3-4 since a 12-3 start and had its hands full with 15th-seeded Union Catholic before ousting the Vikings 47-38 Monday night at Rahway. In a conference-crossover game Jan. 15 in Cranford, the Cougars were more dominant in a 55-27 triumph over the visiting Vikings.
The first game at Rahway pits 13th-seeded Plainfield (5-20) vs. fifth-seeded Linden (14-9). In Watchung Division play, Linden defeated Plainfield 39-27 at home on Dec. 18 and then the Tigers clawed the Cardinals 64-61 at Plainfield on Jan. 18.
In its first-round game Monday at Johnson, Plainfield eliminated fourth-seeded New Providence 57-51. Just four days earlier in a conference-crossover clash, New Providence defeated Plainfield 51-38 at home.
The Mountain Division champion Pioneers had a nine-game winning streak halted, falling to 19-3.
Sparked by 1,000 point scorers – senior Drew Winter and junior Breana Spencer – the Cardinals were probably the first 20-loss team to defeat a 19-win team in first-round play.
Linden has a 1,000 point scorer in senior Jada Lewis.
The second game at Rahway includes teams that are both 19-3. It will be eighth-seeded Oak Knoll vs. top-seeded Roselle Catholic.
Oak Knoll, with only losses to New Providence twice and Westfield once in Mountain Division play, has won five straight. The Royals, who finished second in the Mountain Division at 11-3, did not play Roselle Catholic last year or yet this year.
The Royals are led by county player of the year candidate Kerri Moran – a Bernardsville resident who will continue playing in college at Cornell and who is now Oak Knoll’s all-time leading scorer after reaching 1,000 points as a junior last year – and senior Kelly McAloon and junior Catherine Bonner.
Roselle Catholic is guided by an inside game lifted by junior Tori Pozsonyi and senior Renee Oliver. Senior Niavanni Grant and sophomore Allieyah Cubbage are capable of going strong to the basket, while junior Kate Tobie brings the ball up to set the offense in motion.
Oliver may be leading the county in double-doubles with her prodigious scoring and rebounding.
Since being swept by GL in Watchung Division play – Roselle Catholic ended up winning the Watchung title for the third year in a row and has a 12-3 division mark with a home game to go against Summit – the Lions have won four straight.
Roselle Catholic’s only other loss was to Paramus Catholic 43-41 Jan. 6 at Kean University.
The semifinals are scheduled for Monday night at a site to be determined after Thursday night’s quarterfinals are complete.
The championship game will be at Kean for the third consecutive year, scheduled for Feb. 24 at 6 p.m.