UNION – Arch rival Union had it going on early, scoring the game’s first five points, taking the ball away time and time again and going strong to the hoop.
The host Farmers looked more than up to the challenge of being the first team to knock off undefeated Elizabeth.
A little more than six minutes in Union built a 10-point lead after the Farmers produced their fifth steal of the first quarter.
Elizabeth reserve center Abdul Shanunu then scored off an offensive rebound and teammate DJ Watkins followed with a 3 from the left side right before the first quarter buzzer to innocently enough pull the Minutemen to within five.
That was the beginning of the end for Union.
Elizabeth extended its run to 10-0 in the second quarter to tie the game for the first time. Then behind the continued inside-and-outside dominance of junior forward Jordan Price – who led all scorers with a career-high 26-point performance – the Minutemen began to pull away.
Elizabeth took its second lead and the advantage for good in the latter stages of the second quarter on a layup by Watkins and then – after being ahead by four at intermission – played some of its best basketball of the season in the second half.
After Watkins scored all nine of his points in the first half, senior forward Jesiah West produced all 14 of his in the second half as Elizabeth went on to post a decisive 66-44 boys’ basketball win over Union in Thursday afternoon’s Union County Conference-Mountain Division clash at Union High School’s Louis J. Rettino Gymnasium.
Elizabeth improved to 12-0 overall and leads the Mountain Division at 3-0. Union slipped to 6-6 overall and 2-2 in the Mountain Division.
The teams will clash again in Mountain Division play Feb. 5 at the Dunn Sport Center.
Elizabeth, with two huge games coming up at home against St. Mary’s of Elizabeth Saturday night and then at Union Catholic in Mountain Division play Tuesday night, overcame a sluggish start to keep that zero ever present in the right column of its won-loss record.
Senior captains Brenden Kelly and West were held scoreless in the first half, but were picked up by teammates such as Price, Watkins, Shanunu, Al-Fatir Connor and Pascal Dodard.
“We found out something,” Elizabeth first-year head coach Phil Colicchio said. “We found out that we can play for an extended period of time when Kelly and West are not at their best.”
Dodard, up from the junior varsity, produced a steal and layup to give Elizabeth its first lead at 23-21.
“We needed another guard,” Colicchio said. “Pascal came in off the bench and played well defensively. He really bottled up their guards and he didn’t turn the ball over.
“Then we dominated the paint.”
That’s where Price came in.
It took a while for Price and then West to exhibit their prowess inside, but when they did they took the game over – Price in both halves and West in the second.
Price scored his first seven points in the first quarter and led all scorers with 13 at intermission. After connecting on his second of two 3s for his only points of the third quarter he scored 10 more in the fourth.
Price went to the hoop strong to either come down with a defensive rebound or tip in an offensive miss. From the outside – when Elizabeth had its passing game running smoothly – he was able to catch the ball facing the basket, turn around, and hit a jumper with complete confidence.
Union had no answer for Price hitting his outside shot, which was accurate to the north side of 50 percent.
“Jordan just gets better and better,” Colicchio said. “The job he did on the offensive glass, it’s been like that every single game now for the last five.
“Inside and outside he was there. He’s the first kid at practice and the last kid to leave.”
Price scored Elizabeth’s first points on a 3-pointer from the right side at the 4:35 mark of the first quarter.
“In the beginning we had to step it up on defense,” Price said. “We had to be aggressive on the boards and do a better job of rebounding.”
Price nailed back-to-back jumpers in the lane to extend Elizabeth’s lead to 29-23 near the end of the second quarter.
“I felt confident taking those shots,” Price said. “We started to make some big shots and that got the crowd going. We just tried to be as aggressive as we could be.”
Union scored consecutive baskets – an inside hoop by Ezra Glover and a jumper in the lane by Rache Thomas – to pull to within six at 40-34 with just over two minutes remaining in the third quarter.
However, Elizabeth answered quickly by closing the period on a 5-0 run to take a nine-point lead going into the fourth quarter.
In cementing this division victory Elizabeth ended the first and third quarters on 5-0 runs, the second on a 9-2 run and the fourth on an 11-0 run.
Consecutive baskets by West in the lane put Elizabeth up by 15 at 51-36 with six minutes remaining. The Minutemen never took their foot off the pedal.
“Our kids played with a lot of energy and effort at the start,” said Union eighth-year head coach Kevin Feeley.
Thomas, a 3, and Glover scored the game’s first baskets to give Union a 5-0 lead. Russel Ayala led Union with 12 points, Glover was next with 10 and then Thomas and Jakin Edmond with eight.
Glover and Thomas both came up with two steals in the first eight minutes.
Union forwards Edmond and Val Julien hung in there on the glass in the early going before Price and West – as a tandem – started to take over. The 6-6 Shanunu also made his presence felt from a rebounding standpoint as soon as he entered in the first quarter.
“They wore us down with their size,” Feeley said. “We saw enough of them on film to know what they were going to do. They made their jump shots. That’s a big reason why they are 12-0.
“Our effort was there. We have some things to work on.”
Union’s next three games are also at home, including vs. Morris Knolls Saturday morning, New Providence next Thursday and Orange on Jan. 26.
NOTES: Elizabeth’s next two games will go a long way toward determining its seeding for this year’s Union County Tournament, which will be put together right after the Super Bowl.
Of the four teams in the UCC’s Watchung Division, Elizabeth plays St. Mary’s of Elizabeth this Saturday (barring inclement weather) and then the Patrick School Jan. 29. The Minutemen are not scheduled to face Roselle Catholic and Linden.
The four teams in the Watchung Division were scheduled to play each other Thursday night, with 13-0 Roselle Catholic facing Patrick School (8-5) and Linden (7-6) against St. Mary’s (9-3).
“We come ready to play night in and night out,” Colicchio said. “I only know how to play one way and that’s hard for 32 minutes.”
“Nobody thought we would be 12-0,” Price said. “We still have a lot more games to go. We just have to continue to be ready.”
UNION COUNTY CONFERENCE-MOUNTAIN DIVISION
BOYS’ BASKETBALL AT UNION HIGH SCHOOL
Elizabeth (12-0, 3-0) 12 18 15 21 – 66
Union (6-6, 2-2) 17 09 08 10 – 44
ELIZABETH MINUTEMEN (66):
4-Jordan Price, junior, 8-2-4-26
1-Jesiah West, senior, 6-0-2-14
2-Al-Fatir Connor, sophomore, 0-3-0-9
0-Brenden Kelly, senior, 0-1-0-3
3-DJ Watkins, junior, 1-2-1-9
14-Pascal Dodard, sophomore, 1-0-0-2
33-Abdul Shanunu, senior, 1-0-1-3
Starters: Price, West,
Connor, Kelly, Watkins.
UNION FARMERS (44):
2-Russel Ayala, senior, 3-2-0-12
23-Jakin Edmond, sophomore, 4-0-0-8
0-Ezra Glover, senior, 4-0-2-10
1-Rache Thomas, junior, 1-2-0-8
4-Val Julien, senior, 3-0-0-6
Starters: Ayala, Edmond,
Glover, Thomas, Julien.