ELIZABETH – Jordan Price had been through it before.
The Elizabeth senior power forward has been in several games the past year-plus that saw his Minutemen in need of a sizable comeback if they were to prevail.
Elizabeth was in a similar situation Tuesday night. This time it was against neighborhood rival Linden, a team it had not faced in two years.
Second-year head coach Anthony Drejaj had the visiting Tigers prepared to battle the host Minutemen every step of the way and for a little more than three-and-a-half quarters Linden outhustled, outshot, outrebounded and, more importantly, remained ahead.
Following a three-point play executed by Nashawn Holmes that put Linden back up by four at 50-46 with just under three minutes to play the Minutemen, led by Price and by sophomore guard Jayden Pierre, said that was enough.
After Pierre sank two free throws he followed a Linden turnover with a jumper that tied the game with just 2:18 remaining. The game was knotted for the fifth time and for the first time since midway through the second quarter.
With 1:52 left Price nailed his second of two three-pointers to give Elizabeth its third lead and first since the first quarter.
Elizabeth stretched to an 11-0 run before Linden scored again and then after the Tigers pulled to within three with less than 30 seconds to go the Minutemen closed the game’s scoring on an inside basket by Price and two more free throws by Pierre.
Once again, like it did several times last year and already a couple of times this season, Elizabeth found a way to pull out a victory when it appeared the ball wasn’t bouncing its way.
Price poured in a game-high 24 points, 20 of them coming in the second half, including 13 in the fourth quarter, to lead Elizabeth to a come-from-behind 61-54 triumph over Linden in Tuesday night’s Union County Conference-Watchung Division opener for both contested at a sold out Dunn Sport Center.
Pierre finished with 15 points and senior teammate DJ Watkins poured in 12.
Senior Isaac Thompkins was the only Linden player to finish in double digits with 13 points. However, Linden had seven players score in the first half and also had the lead as many as six times through the middle of the second quarter.
Elizabeth improved to 7-0 overall and 1-0 in the Watchung Division. Under second-year head coach Phil Colicchio, who coached against Linden for the first time, the Minutemen are 33-2 since he took over, including last year’s 26-2 finish. So far in regular season play last year and this year the Minutemen are 29-0.
Linden fell to 4-4 overall and 0-1 in the Watchung Division. The teams are scheduled to play at Linden on Feb. 4.
Price connected for his first three-pointer moments before the third quarter buzzer to pull Elizabeth to within six at 41-35. Before that Linden went ahead by nine for the second time on a Thompkins layup.
“That three right before the fourth quarter was a momentum changer,” Price said.
“That three was huge,” Colicchio said. “They fell asleep on him. It was the first time he caught the ball in rhythm and shot it.”
Price was held to just four points at intermission. He rarely got his hands on the ball in a first quarter where he didn’t even manage to get off a shot.
However, he made the crucial fourth quarter his time.
“Going into the fourth quarter we all had to play together and trust our offense,” Price said. “On defense their guards were getting whatever they wanted so we had to go to our shell. We were late with it in the first half.”
Although Elizabeth was doing its best to continue to chip away at Linden’s lead in the fourth quarter the Tigers kept coming back. A jump shot here and a layup there kept Elizabeth fans skeptical as the clock ticked away.
That was until Pierre’s jump shot tied the game at 50-50. Then a steal by Price set up his second three that gave Elizabeth the lead for good at 53-50. The roar of the crowd once Price hit the shot shook the gym just a bit louder than the approval of Linden fans every time the Tigers scored.
Elizabeth’s first two leads were 5-4 and 9-8 produced in the first eight minutes of play.
“We never panicked,” Price said. “We’ve been in games like this before. We trust ourselves.
“Linden is a big rival. We just had to stick it out, play to the competition and step up.”
Linden can be nothing but proud of the effort it put forth. The unranked Tigers came very close to pulling off a big upset of the No. 3 ranked team in the state.
“We knew they would have a run in them,” Drejaj said referring to Elizabeth taking the lead in the fourth quarter. “For three-and-a-half quarters we were right there.
“In the fourth quarter, no excuses, their pressure defense got to us. We had no answer for it.
“I hate moral victories, but we played tough. If we play this way each night we can be very dangerous.”
Colicchio expected nothing but a close game that was going to have its twist and turns.
“First of all hats off to Anthony and Linden,” Colicchio said. “I knew it was going to be this kind of game.
“They kept us off balance with their defensive pressure and they controlled tempo. They confused us. They destroyed us off the glass in the first half.
“When the fourth quarter began our kids didn’t panic. They’ve been down this road before. Price stepped up like a senior should.
“We expected this to be close game. The bottom line is that we won.”
UNION COUNTY CONFERENCE-WATCHUNG DIVISION
BOYS BASKETBALL AT THE DUNN SPORT CENTER
Linden (4-4, 0-1) 12 16 13 13 – 54
Elizabeth (7-0, 1-0) 12 09 14 26 – 61
LINDEN TIGERS (54):
13-Amir Williams, senior, 3-0-3-9
14-Steeve Dorvil, sophomore, 2-0-0-4
1-Nashawn Holmes, senior, 2-0-1-5
5-Isaac Thompkins, senior, 5-1-0-13
2-Nigel Merville, sophomore, 2-0-4-8
32-Yasin Willock, senior, 3-0-1-7
20-Colin Cowan, junior, 2-0-0-4
3-Kaddin Berry, senior, 2-0-0-4
Starters: Holmes, Williams,
Willock, Thompkins, Cowan.
ELIZABETH MINUTEMEN (61):
11-Jayden Pierre, sophomore, 4-0-7-15
4-Jordan Price, senior, 7-2-4-24
2-Evan Perez, junior, 1-1-4-6
3-DJ Watkins, senior, 2-1-5-12
21-Gil Moria, junior, 2-0-0-4
0-Pascal Dodard, junior, 0-0-0-0
22-Zyree Beverly, sophomore, 0-0-0-0
Starters: Price, Watkins,
Dodard, Pierre, Moria.