WARREN – In the span of a minute and a half visiting Elizabeth went from having its biggest lead of seven to seeing the game tied for the ninth time by a Watchung Hills team seeking its first-ever sectional state title.
With less than two minutes remaining the Minutemen came down and missed, with Watchung Hills gaining the rebound. An Elizabeth foul sent Brian Hopwood to the line with the first 1-and-1 of the second half.
Hopwood missed his first free throw attempt and Elizabeth’s Al-Fatir Connor grabbed the rebound. The Minutemen then worked the ball around from left to right and then back to the player that saved them time and time again.
Sophomore guard Jayden Pierre took the final pass of the sequence and calmly sank a short jumper in the lane, two-handed and hitting nothing but the bottom of the net, to give Elizabeth its ninth lead.
Pierre, in the right spot at the right time, felt exactly that way when the ball left his hands.
“It looked good and it felt good,” Pierre said of his game-winning shot. “The game was tied, so if I miss, we go to overtime. I didn’t want to go to overtime. I worked so hard my whole life to make that shot.”
Pierre’s only points of the fourth quarter, coming when there was just 2.3 seconds remaining on the clock, pushed second-seeded Elizabeth past top-seeded Watchung Hills 56-54 in Tuesday night’s thrilling North 2, Group 4 state championship boys basketball game played at Watchung Hills High School in front of a sold out crowd heavy on the ears.
“I knew when he shot the ball that it was going in,” said Elizabeth head coach Phil Colicchio, who guided his alma mater to a sectional state championship for the first time.
What happened to Watchung Hills, which was in its first sectional final since 1984, Tuesday night happened to Elizabeth last year. With last year’s game at the Dunn Sport Center in Elizabeth tied, Newark East Side’s Anos Amos made the game’s final shot inside of the final two seconds to send the Red Raiders to a two-point road victory at 50-48.
Elizabeth won North 2, Group 4 for the first time since 2012. The Minutemen are two wins away from winning Group 4 for the first time since 1991.
Colicchio, a 1984 Elizabeth graduate, is now 10-6 in the North 2, Group 4 final, 9-5 with Linden and now 1-1 with Elizabeth. He is also at 499 wins, the last 49 coming at Elizabeth, including this year’s 23-4 mark.
Watchung Hills, which gave a gutsy performance led by 1999 alum Justin Saltin, the head coach now for 12 years, finished one of its best seasons in program history at 25-5. The Warriors went on a 12-0 run in the first quarter to take a lead of 19-8 and after trailing 31-30 at the break came back to take a 43-38 lead toward the end of the third quarter.
When Trevor Bokach sank the game’s final three-point field goal from the right side with 1:54 to go to tie the game for Watchung Hills at 54-54, the home team fans erupted for one final time.
Elizabeth will next take on North 1, Group 4 champion Paterson Kennedy Thursday night at 7 at Dunn in the Group 4 semifinals. Kennedy just won its first sectional title since 1998 Tuesday night by easily defeating visiting Ridgewood 74-44.
Elizabeth is 49-6 under Colicchio, including 26-2 last year, and the only time the Minutemen lost to a public school team from New Jersey last year or this year was the setback to Newark East Side 12 months ago. Elizabeth lost to Patrick School in last year’s Union County Tournament semifinals and this year fell to a team from Delaware and to Roselle Catholic three times.
PIERRE AND PRICE A PERFECT PAIR
Pierre scored Elizabeth’s last nine points and the game’s final seven of the second quarter to hand his team a 31-30 lead heading into the locker room at halftime.
“That was big,” Pierre said. “We were not at our best in the first half.”
That included the bigs from Watchung Hills, Chad Martini (6-6) and Pat Stefurak (6-5), driving right past Price and filling the hoop.
“We expected a tough game from them,” said Price, who will continue playing at New Haven. “When we were down we had to step it up on defense, that was the key to this game. We had to have a lot of help.”
“Watchung Hills was slipping and screening early on and we made an adjustment,” Colicchio said.
One player off the bench that provided defensive support was sophomore Etienne Richelieu.
While Pierre led all scorers with 14 at intermission, Price scored 10 of his 17 in the second half. He produced a three-point play to put Elizabeth up 47-44 and then his final basket, also inside, gave Elizabeth its largest lead of 54-47 with three minutes to go.
“Jayden is the best sophomore point guard on the East Coast,” Colicchio said. “I’ve sung his praises all year. He’s a scorer and a leader.
“Jordan went from losing to us at Linden two years ago by 50 points to being a state champion now. He stuck with it.”
Al-Fatir Connor poured in 12 points for Elizabeth. The junior guard connected on a three-pointer to give Elizabeth a 50-47 edge and then came up with a steal and layup to make the score 52-47.
“This is a great feeling,” Connor said. “We wanted this for the seniors. Sadly, we lost last year.
“Last year we deserved it. This year we got it.”
The way Watchung Hills went up by double digits in the first quarter was by spreading the ball out as much as it could. At the time they made their 12-0 run they made seven of their first nine shots from the field. When they were ahead 19-8 they were 8-of-10.
Scoring in that span were senior guard Michael Bressler, who along with Stefurak finished with 10 points, Martini, Jack Dwyer, Hopwood, Stefurak and Bokach, who led the Warriors with 13.
After winning the first quarter 21-13, Watchung Hills had trouble holding on to the ball in the second quarter, committing six turnovers. Elizabeth took advantage by following up those miscues with baskets of its own.
In the third quarter the game was tied five more times before Watchung Hills took its 43-38 lead on an inside basket by Bokach. Elizabeth answered with baskets by Fatir-Connor and Pierre to close the period down by just one.
“I didn’t like the way we played in the third quarter,” Colicchio said. “We weren’t attacking enough.
”We didn’t want to get into a three-point shooting contest with them. We wanted to put their guys out on the wings and not give up any easy shots.
“Bressler is one of the most amazing players I’ve coached against. I sought opinions on how to prepare for the 5-5 guard.”
Colicchio just coached in the North 2, Group 4 final for the eighth consecutive year, going 6-2 in that span.
“I’ve been fortunate to be in all these finals because of the great players I’ve had,” Colicchio said. “I’ve also learned a lot from (Elizabeth assistant) Coach Steve Petruzzelli, one of the best coaches the last 40 years.
“I never take it for granted.”
NORTH 2, GROUP 4 BOYS BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
2-Elizabeth (23-4) 13 18 11 14 – 56
1-Watchung Hills (25-5) 21 09 13 11 – 54
2-ELIZABETH MINUTEMEN (56):
11-Jayden Pierre, sophomore, 7-1-1-18
4-Jordan Price, senior, 5-1-4-17
5-Al-Fatir Connor, junior, 3-2-0-12
12-Etienne Richelieu, sophomore, 1-0-0-2
3-DJ Watkins, senior, 1-0-0-2
0-Pascal Dodard, junior, 0-0-2-2
2-Evan Perez, junior, 0-1-0-3
22-Zyree Beverly, sophomore, 0-0-0-0
Starters: Pierre, Price,
Watkins, Perez, Beverly.
1-WATCHUNG HILLS WARRIORS (54):
11-Trevor Bokach, junior, 4-1-2-13
22-Pat Stefurak, senior, 4-0-2-10
3-Michael Bressler, senior, 1-2-2-10
23-Elijah Lewis, sophomore, 1-0-4-6
21-Chad Martini, junior, 4-0-1-9
14-Brian Hopwood, junior, 2-0-0-4
15-Jack Dwyer, senior, 1-0-0-2
Starters: Bokach, Bressler,
Dwyer, Hopwood, Martini.
PHIL COLICCHIO RECORD BREAKDOWN:
1996-1997 (1 season) at Barringer: (12-11)
1997-1998 to 2017-2018 (21 seasons) at Linden: (438-154)
2018-2019 to 2019-2020 (2 seasons) at Elizabeth: (49-6)
Total: 499-171 (.745)
PHIL COLICCHIO NORTH 2, GROUP 4 FINALS RECORD:
At Linden: 9-5
Wins: 2000, 2006, 2007, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017.
Losses: 1999, 2003, 2005, 2008, 2018.
Linden won North 2, Group 4 five years in a row from 2013-2017
and six out of seven years from 2011-2017.
From 2013-2018 Linden won 23 straight N2, G4 games before falling
in the 2018 final at Newark East Side.
At Elizabeth: 1-1
Colicchio is now 10-6 in North 2, Group 4 finals and has guided teams to the last eight championship games, going 6-2 (Linden 5-1 and Elizabeth 1-1) in that span.
2020 NORTH 2, GROUP 4 BOYS BASKETBALL
SEEDS: 1-Watchung Hills. 2-Elizabeth. 3-Linden. 4-Westfield.
5-Newark East Side. 6-Union. 7-Plainfield. 8-Franklin.
9-Edison. 10-Dickinson. 11-Perth Amboy. 12-Hunterdon Central.
13-North Hunterdon. 14-Ridge. 15-Columbia. 16-Barringer.
Tuesday, March 3
Watchung Hills 72, Barringer 47 – at Watchung Hills
Franklin 66, Edison 60 – at Franklin
Newark East Side 49, Huterdon Central 47 – at Newark East Side
Westfield 73, North Hunterdon 57 – at Westfield
Linden 42, Ridge 40 – at Linden
Union 67, Perth Amboy 40 – at Union
Plainfield 67, Dickinson 47 – at Plainfield
Elizabeth 61, Columbia 31 – at Elizabeth
Thursday, March 5
Watchung Hills 88, Franklin 47 – at Watchung Hills
Westfield 54, Newark East Side 50 – at Westfield
Linden 52, Union 46 – at Linden
Elizabeth 58, Plainfield 33 – at Elizabeth
Saturday, March 7
Watchung Hills 77, Westfield 47 – at Watchung Hills
Elizabeth 60, Linden 49 – at Elizabeth
Tuesday, March 10
Elizabeth 56, Watchung Hills 54 – at Watchung Hills
NORTH 2, GROUP 4 CHAMPIONS
THE PAST 43 SEASONS:
2020 – Elizabeth
2019 – Newark East Side
2018 – Newark East Side
2017 – Linden
2016 – Linden
2015 – Linden
2014 – Linden
2013 – Linden
2012 – Elizabeth
2011 – Linden
2010 – Plainfield
2009 – Plainfield
2008 – Piscataway
2007 – Linden
2006 – Linden
2005 – Bridgewater-Raritan
2004 – Plainfield
2003 – Elizabeth
2002 – Newark East Side
2001 – Newark East Side
2000 – Linden
1999 – Union
1998 – Newark East Side
1997 – Union
1996 – Linden
1995 – Elizabeth
1994 – Montclair
1993 – Irvington
1992 – Irvington
1991 – Elizabeth
1990 – Elizabeth
1989 – Elizabeth
1988 – Elizabeth
1987 – Elizabeth
1986 – Montclair
1985 – Elizabeth
1984 – East Orange
1983 – Plainfield
1982 – Montclair
1981 – Shabazz
1980 – Barringer
1979 – Union
1978 – Linden