ELIZABETH – For many years the Elizabeth Dunn Sport Center rocked as it served as the center of the universe for upper echelon boys’ basketball in the state of New Jersey.
Then for some time the Dunn Center was, well, done.
The Union County Tournament, in addition to other showcase matchups, moved over to Kean University.
Elizabeth struggled to win basketball games. The Dunn Center became a thing of the past.
On Tuesday night it made a comeback.
In a big way.
With the host Minutemen showing signs of vast improvement, they took on Union Catholic in the first Mountain Division game for both state-ranked Union County Conference squads.
Elizabeth entered 8-0 – a start the Minutemen have not attained in some time – while Union Catholic was 7-1 and on a seven-game winning streak after opening at Elizabeth with an overtime loss to Shore Conference foe Manasquan.
Sometimes these matchups don’t live up to the billing, to the hype.
That was not the case Tuesday night.
A pretty substantial crowd was treated to a Union County Conference classic as the pendulum of each team’s fortunes kept swinging back and forth, reading like an Edgar Allen Poe tale.
Union Catholic took the first lead. Elizabeth then began to find its rhythm and passed the visiting Vikings to be in front at intermission.
Union Catholic then took back the lead in the third quarter before Elizabeth managed to tie the game late in the fourth to force overtime.
Big shots were made and many were missed. The same went for attempts from the free throw line.
There was a second overtime because Union Catholic made a huge 3 to tie the game again.
Then there was a third overtime because, after being down by five in double overtime, Union Catholic came back once more.
After trailing again in triple overtime, Union Catholic actually took separate one-point leads before Elizabeth found a way to score the game’s final four points.
Excruciating, exhausting, frustrating, thrilling, highly-dramatic – your call – this game had all of that and more.
In the end Elizabeth remained undefeated by producing a 73-70 UCC-Mountain Division win over Union Catholic.
Elizabeth is now 9-0 and has won nine games for the first time in six years. The Minutemen last won nine games in 2012-2013, finishing 18-7. That was also the last season Elizabeth finished over .500.
Union Catholic is now 7-2, with each of its losses taking place at the Dunn Sport Center court, both also coming in overtime.
The teams will play their second and final Mountain Division matchup in Scotch Plains in two weeks on Jan. 22 at 7 p.m.
It will be tough to match the classic contest that these teams executed on a Tuesday night at the Dunn Sport Center.
“It was a packed environment, a wild crowd and a back-and-forth game,” said lightning-quick Union Catholic senior guard Jaheim Tanksley, who poured in 20 points, including a huge 3-pointer that tied the game at 61-61 in double overtime.
“Coaches told us that we fought hard and kept on fighting. We proved that if we play as a team we can beat anyone. Credit Elizabeth. We’ll get another shot at them.”
Fellow senior guard Nahshon Battle led all scorers with 26 points, including a game-high seven 3-pointers. His seventh and final 3 tied the game for the sixth time at 56-56 with just 6.7 seconds left in single overtime, forcing a second extra session.
“This was just a great high school basketball game,” said Union Catholic head coach Dr. James Reagan, Jr. “We had the ball and chances to win in triple and double overtime. Elizabeth is really good. We had a nice win over Hudson Catholic and almost pulled this one out.
“They got this one and in two weeks they will come to our place.”
Elizabeth, which had five players score in double digits – junior Jordan Price led the way with 21 – found a way at the end of the third overtime to finally end it.
A jumper from the right side by Battle put Union Catholic up for the final time at 70-69 with a minute to go. Senior guard Brenden Kelly brought the ball up. His shot at the fourth quarter buzzer fell short of ending the game in regulation.
Kelly got the ball inside, with Elizabeth’s first two shots falling short. Then reserve 6-6 senior center Abdel Shanunu grabbed another offensive rebound and put the ball in to give the Minutemen the lead for good at 71-70.
After getting the ball to half court and then calling a timeout with 11.76 seconds left, the Vikings passed the ball twice before trying to kick it out. However, Elizabeth sophomore Al-Fatir Connor was able to wrestle the ball away and got fouled.
With 1.93 seconds remaining Connor made both free throws to put Elizabeth ahead 73-70. A more-than half court shot by Tanksley at the buzzer was no good.
Elizabeth prevailed for the ninth time in nine tries so far this young season.
“I told Jim (Reagan) and his players, ‘nobody won or lost this game, time just ran out on you,’” Elizabeth first-year head coach Phil Colicchio said. “This was a game of big shots and ups and downs and sideways, you name it.
“We gambled a bit on defense on that last possession. We stayed in a zone and I think it confused them a bit.”
Not only did Connor – who finished with 14 points – come through at the end with two big free throws, but he hit a 3-pointer from the left side at the third quarter buzzer that pulled Elizabeth to within six at 42-36.
Who knew then how big that basket would turn out to be?
“He’s only a sophomore doing this,” Colicchio said. “We encourage him to take the shot. You can’t make it if you don’t take it.
“Our two guards (Connor and Kelly) played the entire game.”
Amazingly, no one fouled out or was even in foul trouble.
There was not one technical foul called.
The only period Union Catholic did not have a lead was in single overtime.
The only quarters Elizabeth did not have a lead were in the first and fourth.
Elizabeth scored first in all three overtime periods.
FIRST QUARTER: Union Catholic 12-7, Vikings lead 12-7.
SECOND QUARTER: Elizabeth 18-9, Minutemen lead 25-21.
THIRD QUARTER: Union Catholic 21-11, Vikings lead 42-36.
FOURTH QUARTER: Elizabeth 10-4, game tied 46-46.
FIRST OVERTIME: 10-10, game still tied 56-56.
SECOND OVERTIME: 7-7, game still tied 63-63.
THIRD OVERTIME: Elizabeth 10-7, Minutemen win 73-70.
Union Catholic enjoyed the game’s biggest run at 14-0 in the second quarter immediately after Elizabeth took its first of two biggest leads of five points at 31-26. It started with free throws by Tanksley and non-starter Elijah Barlow and continued with a layup and free throw for a 3-point play by Archer, a 3 by Battle, another 3 by Barlow and a jumper by starter Matt Tracey.
“We shared the ball really well there,” Reagan said.
“We didn’t panic there,” Colicchio said. “We were down by that much against Rutgers Prep and came back. The kids are learning how to trust us. They want to win.”
Shanunu made the biggest difference off the bench with his ability to rebound, score inside, get fouled and make his free throws. His first of two field goals – he finished with 10 points – were the final two points of regulation. Shanunu put in a shot off his own miss.
“He was a game-changer for them for sure,” Reagan said.
“Abdul did a great job defensively of clogging up the middle,” Colicchio said. “He challenged their shots, rebounded well and made all of his free throws.”
Battle and Tanksley both showed their poise as leaders when Union Catholic needed them the most.
“They’re seniors who stepped up for us in big spots,” Reagan said. “This was our first conference game, a road game in the Union County Conference.
“We lament the missed opportunity. We just came up short. We have another road conference game at Union Thursday, which is a place we haven’t done that well at recently.
“We leave here with our heads held real high. Elizabeth is tough to beat here at home.”
For Elizabeth seniors Kelly and Jesiah West, it was a grueling game, but one that they were happy to come out on top in.
“This was fun to play in,” said Kelly.
“We kept on fighting and worked hard to finish,” West said.
In winning the second quarter 18-9 Elizabeth was much more aggressive inside.
“Getting the ball down low and dominating the paint were the keys,” West said.
As for Elizabeth’s 9-0 start?
“It feels good, but there is still a lot of work to do,” Kelly said.
Elizabeth’s next game is Saturday vs. Pleasantville in Atlantic City.
“Did we expect to start 9-0, no,” Colicchio said. “Do we deserve to be 9-0, yes. We’ve worked hard so far to be 9-0.
“For our first conference game we didn’t know how it would go. You saw the big buzz around here.
“I’m happy for the kids, the city and that basketball is back on the map here.”
UNION COUNTY CONFERENCE-MOUNTAIN DIVISION
BOYS’ BASKETBALL AT ELIZABETH DUNN SPORT CENTER
Union Catholic (7-2, 0-1) 12 09 21 04 10 07 07 – 70
Elizabeth (9-0, 1-0) 07 18 11 10 10 07 10 – 73
UNION CATHOLIC VIKINGS (70):
15-Nahshon Battle, senior, 2-7-1-26
1-Jaheim Tanksley, senior, 5-2-4-20
22-Isaiah Hill, sophomore, 2-0-0-4
2-Justin Archer, senior, 3-0-3-9
3-Giovanni Phillip, junior, 1-0-0-2
4-Elijah Barlow, sophomore, 1-1-0-5
21-Matt Tracey, junior, 2-0-0-4
Starters: Archer, Battle,
Phillip, Tanksley, Tracey.
ELIZABETH MINUTEMEN (73):
2-Al-Fatir Connor, sophomore, 1-2-6-14
33-Abdul Shanunu, senior, 2-0-6-10
0-Brenden Kelly, senior, 2-2-2-12
4-Jordan Price, junior, 8-0-5-21
1-Jesiah West, senior, 5-0-2-12
3-DJ Watkins, junior, 2-0-0-4
Starters: Connor, Kelly,
Price, Watkins, West.
THERE WERE 13 LEAD CHANGES AS THE CROWD OOOHED AND AHHHED
There were 13 lead changes, with Elizabeth taking the lead for good at 71-70 on an inside basket off an offensive rebound by reserve senior center Abdul Shanunu. The field goal came with less than a minute to go in the third overtime period.
Elizabeth had a total of 11 leads and Union Catholic 8.
There were 9 ties, the last one at 65-65 early in triple overtime.
Here’s a look at the scores of each team’s leads and how they were created:
Union Catholic jumped out to leads of 5-0 (inside basket by Justin Archer and a 3 by Nahshon Battle) and 8-1 and led the entire first quarter, building a 12-7 advantage after the first eight minutes.
Elizabeth’s first lead was 17-16 on a fast break layup by Al-Fatir Connor.
Union Catholic’s second lead was 19-17 on a 3 by Battle, his third of a game-high seven.
Elizabeth’s second lead was 20-19 on a free throw by Jordan Price.
Union Catholic’s third lead was 21-20 on a layup by Jaheim Tanksley.
Elizabeth’s third lead was 23-21 on a 3-pointer from the right side made by Archer.
Union Catholic’s fourth lead was 32-31 on a free throw by Archer.
Union Catholic’s fifth lead was 46-44 on a jumper from the free throw line by Battle.
Elizabeth’s fourth lead was 49-46 on a 3 by Brenden Kelly from the right side for the first points of the first overtime period.
Elizabeth’s fifth lead was 51-49 on a tip in by Jesiah West.
Elizabeth’s sixth lead was 57-56 on a free throw by West for the first point of double overtime.
Elizabeth’s seventh lead was 62-61 on a free throw by Price.
Union Catholic’s sixth lead was 63-62 on a jumper made by reserve Isaiah Hill with 1:06 remaining in double overtime.
Elizabeth’s eighth lead was 64-63 on the first of two free throws made by Connor to open the scoring in triple overtime.
Elizabeth’s ninth lead – after the ninth and final tie of 65-65 – was 66-65 on the first of two free throws made by reserve senior center Abdul Shanunu, who was a perfect 6-for-6 from the free throw line, hitting nothing but the bottom of the net on all six shots. Shanunu scored 10 points off the bench, all of them coming from the fourth quarter on.
Union Catholic’s seventh lead was 68-67 on a 3 made from the left side by Tanksley with 1:22 to go in triple overtime.
Elizabeth’s 10th lead was 69-68 on a shot in the lane made by Kelly, his final points of the game. Kelly made two 2s, two 3s and two free throws to finish with 12 points.
Union Catholic’s eighth and final lead was 70-69 on a jumper from the right side made by Battle with exactly one minute remaining in triple overtime.
Elizabeth’s 11th and final lead was 71-70 on Shanunu’s second field goal. It was the third shot of that Elizabeth possession after two misses.
The ties were: 19-19, 31-31, 44-44, 46-46, 49-49, 56-56, 61-61, 63-63, 65-65.
Elizabeth’s biggest lead was 5 twice: 31-26 and 61-56.
Union Catholic’s biggest lead was 9 twice: 40-31 and 42-33.
Union Catholic had the game’s biggest run: 14-0 which came in the second quarter.