Elizabeth wins first girls UCT basketball title since 1997

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ELIZABETH, NJ — When this 2023-2024 girls basketball season commenced on Thursday, Dec. 14, Elizabeth High School at Frank J. Cicarell Academy immediately lost at home to Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School by 15 points, which was the team that ended the Minutemen’s season in the North 2, Group 4 playoffs a year ago.

Elizabeth, now in the tougher Watchung Division, was out to prove that the Minutemen could hang with the likes of the Cranfords, New Providences and Westfields of the world.

Elizabeth ended up going 5-7 in division play, tied for fourth with Scotch Plains-Fanwood. The only team the Minutemen swept was Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child. They split with Scotch Plains-Fanwood, Westfield and Roselle Catholic and were swept by four-peat champion New Providence and Cranford.

After just getting past Union Catholic High School by three points in the first round of the Union County Tournament, Elizabeth clashed with Scotch Plains-Fanwood again in the quarterfinals and survived by four points.

That meant fourth-seeded Elizabeth was going to have to beat the top seed, New Providence High School, in the semifinals and then, perhaps, second-seed Cranford High School in the final to win the championship for the first time in 27 years.

With New Providence attempting to become the first three-peat champion since Roselle Catholic turned the feat from 2009 to 2011, Elizabeth found a way to knock out the two-time defending champion Pioneers 64-58 at Arthur L. Johnson High School.

New Providence won the Watchung Division this year with a perfect record at 12-0, including two wins against Elizabeth, and entered the UCT semifinal vs. the Minutemen on Wednesday, Feb. 14, undefeated against Union County competition so far this year.

After ousting the top seed, Elizabeth now went up against second-seeded Cranford, which knocked off third-seeded Roselle Catholic, 50-48, in its UCT semifinal at Arthur L. Johnson.

Elizabeth was also swept by Cranford in Watchung Division play, after beating the Cougars in last year’s UCT quarterfinals, in overtime, at Rahway High School. That game was decided by two points.

This year’s regular season division games won by Cranford were decided by three points in overtime in Cranford and by two points in regulation in Elizabeth.

So, to no one’s surprise, Elizabeth found a way to come back from going down by four points going into the fourth quarter. The Minutemen actually took the lead, however, and it was Cranford scoring that sent the game to overtime.

Elizabeth, which won the fourth quarter, 21-17, was in front by three points at 53-50 with 22 seconds left, when Sophia DeMarco drained a three-pointer for Cranford to tie the game and eventually send it to overtime by the score of 53-53.

After Alexandra Koon made one of two free throws to put Elizabeth back up by one at 54-53, Cranford came right back with a basket by Bella Curanovic to take a 55-54 edge with less than three-and-a-half minutes to go in overtime.

A basket by Elizabeth’s Jah’nae Lembrick kept the back-and-forth seesaw scoring going to give Elizabeth the lead again at 56-55. Koon followed with one of two free throws with a little more than one minute to play to extend the lead to 57-55.

Curanovic tied the game for Cranford one last time with a basket just inside one minute remaining to make it a 57-57 contest.

As time ticked away, it was a basket by senior forward Koon with four seconds remaining that proved to be the difference.

As it turned out, fourth-seeded Elizabeth edged second-seeded Cranford 59-57 in overtime in the 48th annual girls basketball Union County Tournament championship game on Sunday, Feb. 18, played at Kean University’s Harwood Arena in Union.

Elizabeth, playing in the final for the first time since 2008, captured its fourth championship and first since three-peating in 1997. The first two came in 1995 and 1996.

Cranford, competing in the championship game for the first time since 2016, was seeking its third UCT crown and first in eight years. Cranford’s titles came in 2006 and 2016.

Elizabeth and Cranford have now clashed four times in the past 12 months, with Elizabeth winning UCT contests before and after Cranford won two Watchung Division affairs this season.

In the last four games, each team has won twice, with a total of one more point by Cranford being the overall point difference. Both of Elizabeth’s UCT victories against Cranford last year and this year were by the score of 59-57 and concluded in single overtime.

For Elizabeth head coach Chrystal Rinehold, who was right there with her team on Sunday, Feb. 18, but could not directly coach because she was still on maternity leave, her team winning the UCT title was the validation it sought since she took over a year ago.

“It feels like a dream,” Rinehold said by phone on Monday morning, Feb. 19. “This is what we’ve all worked for since last year.”

Donald Johnson was the assistant coach that led the Elizabeth staff in stepping in directly for Rinehold, who gave birth to daughter Nova on Tuesday, Feb. 13.

“We have so many different personalities on this team and they all stuck to coach Johnson’s scouting reports,” Rinehold said.

After being swept by the top seed, New Providence, and by the second seed, Cranford, in Watchung Division play, Elizabeth came back to beat the top two seeds, one-New Providence and two-Cranford, to win the championship the Minutemen felt from day one was completely possible.

“Our team has an innocence to our competitiveness,” Rinehold said. “It’s their maturity and grit.”

Koon, her team’s leading scorer, paced Elizabeth with 21 points and also in rebounding with 12, while Ashanti Dewalt and Lembrick also scored in double-digits with 13 and 10 points, respectively. Dynasty Chandler had four points and 10 rebounds.

Lembrick also led Elizabeth with 10 assists.

“Cranford focused on Lembrick and Koon in the first half, but it seemed like they went away from that plan in the second half,” Rinehold said. “Lembrick had 10 assists and was much better in the paint in the second half.”

Curanovic paced all scorers with 25 points on 10 field goals and five-for-seven from the free throw line. Curanovic also led the Cougars in rebounds with nine. DeMarco finished with 12 points, Lily Costello with nine points, Maddy DeLong with eight points and Kristina Lowe with three points. DeLong and Lowe each pulled down six boards.

Last year, Elizabeth began 20-0 before losing to Jonathan Dayton High School. The Minutemen then rebounded with the Cranford UCT quarterfinal round win before being thumped in the UCT semifinals by Westfield.

Elizabeth went 23-3 last year, with all three losses to Union County opponents, one in the regular season, one in the UCT and one in the states.

“We were humbled by all of our losses last year,” Rinehold said. “I think a big part of us getting past Cranford last year was the loss the game before to Dayton. We also learned a thing or two after playing Westfield last year.”

Elizabeth, as the fifth seed, will host 12-seeded Westfield on Wednesday, Feb. 21, in the first round of the North 2, Group 4 playoffs.

“We weren’t crazy about being in the Mountain Division last year,” said Rinehold, whose team won the division at 11-1 and then moved back up to the Watchung Division this year. “We still had big goals right from the beginning.

“It was a lot of hard work. The kids sacrificed and gave up their summer to get better.”

Here’s how Rinehold explained what she thought was most important about her team coming out on top Sunday: “It was our discipline on defense and it was a game-changer in the fourth quarter. We only had two fouls. Cranford had more and had to play more carefully. We were able to be more aggressive.”

48th Girls Basketball
Union County Tournament

Seeds: 1-New Providence. 2-Cranford. 3-Roselle Catholic. 4-Elizabeth. 5-Scotch Plains-Fanwood. 6-Plainfield. 7-Summit. 8-Westfield. 9-Arthur L. Johnson. 10-Governor Livingston. 11-Jonathan Dayton. 12-Oak Knoll. 13-Union Catholic. 14-Abraham Clark. 15-Rahway, 16-Linden. 17-Union. 18-Hillside. 19-Kent Place.

Preliminary Round
Saturday, Feb. 3

Rahway 51, Hillside 34 – at Rahway

Monday, Feb. 5

Union 38, Linden 34 – at Linden
Abraham Clark 62, Kent Place 50 – at Abraham Clark

First Round
Wednesday, Feb. 7

New Providence 65, Union 25- at New Providence
Westfield 43, Arthur L. Johnson 38 – at Westfield
Scotch Plains-Fanwood 50, Oak Knoll 41 – at Scotch Plains-Fanwood
Elizabeth 55, Union Catholic 52 – at Elizabeth
Roselle Catholic 69, Abraham Clark 48 – at Roselle Catholic
Plainfield 56, Jonathan Dayton 30 – at Plainfield
Summit 44, Governor Livingston 32 – at Summit
Cranford 53, Rahway 21 – at Cranford

Friday, Feb. 9

At Arthur L. Johnson

New Providence 36, Westfield 22
Elizabeth 57, Scotch Plains-Fanwood 53

At Rahway

Cranford 38, Summit 23
Roselle Catholic 58, Plainfield 40

Wednesday, Feb. 14

At Arthur L. Johnson

Cranford 50, Roselle Catholic 48
Elizabeth 64, New Providence 58

Sunday, Feb. 18

At Kean University

Elizabeth 59, Cranford 57 (OT)

Union County teams in state tournament

State tournament play commences around New Jersey with public school Groups 4 and 2 beginning Wednesday, Feb. 21, and Groups 3 and 1 on Thursday, Feb. 22:

North 2, Group 4 (6 schools): Plainfield, Union, Elizabeth, Westfield, Scotch Plains-Fanwood, Linden.
16-Union at 1-Plainfield. 12-Westfield at 5-Elizabeth. 11-Scotch Plains-Fanwood at 6-Franklin. 15-Linden at 2-Hillsborough.

North 2, Group 3 (3 schools): Summit, Governor Livingston, Cranford.

9-Randolph at 8-Summit. 13-Governor Livingston at 4-Summit.

North 2, Group 2 (1 school): Jonathan Dayton.
11-Jonathan Dayton at 6-Lyndhurst.

North 2, Group 1 (1 school): David Brearley.
13-Palisades Park at 4-David Brearley.

Central Jersey, Group 2 (3 schools): New Providence, Abraham Clark, Arthur L. Johnson.

16-Point Pleasant Boro at 1-New Providence.13-Abraham Clark at 4-Voorhees. 14-Arthur L. Johnson at 3-Rumson-Fair Haven.

Non-Public, North A (2 schools): Oak Knoll, Kent Place.

Friday, Feb. 23

12-Oak Knoll at 5-St. Elizabeth. 13-Kent Place at 4-Newark Academy.
Non-Public, North B (1 school): Roselle Catholic.

Monday, Feb. 26

5-Roselle Catholic at 4-Saddle River Day.
Non-Public, South A (1 school): Union Catholic.

Thursday, Feb. 22

11-Union Catholic at 6-Our Lady of Mercy
Non-Public, South B (1 school): Koinonia Academy, Plainfield

Friday, Feb. 23

11-Koinonia at 6-Holy Spirit

Frank J. Cicarell UCT
Girls’ Basketball Champions

2024 – Elizabeth
2023 – New Providence
2022 – New Providence
2021 – No UCT because of COVID-19 pandemic
2020 – Westfield
2019 – Patrick School
2018 – Roselle Catholic
2017 – Patrick School
2016 – Cranford
2015 – Patrick School – first time
2014 – Roselle Catholic
2013 – Governor Livingston
2012 – Governor Livingston – first time
2011 – Roselle Catholic
2010 – Roselle Catholic
2009 – Roselle Catholic
2008 – Westfield – first time
2007 – Scotch Plains-Fanwood
2006 – Cranford – first time
2005 – Scotch Plains-Fanwood
2004 – Scotch Plains-Fanwood – first time
2003 – Roselle Catholic – first time
2002 – Abraham Clark – first time
2001 – Union Catholic
2000 – Union – first time
1999 – Summit – first time
1998 – Union Catholic
1997 – Elizabeth
1996 – Elizabeth
1995 – Elizabeth – first time
1994 – Linden
1993 – Linden
1992 – Union Catholic
1991 – Linden – first time
1990 – New Providence – first time
1989 – Union Catholic
1988 – Union Catholic
1987 – Union Catholic
1986 – Union Catholic
1985 – Hillside – first time
1984 – Plainfield
1983 – Plainfield
1982 – Plainfield
1981 – Plainfield
1980 – Plainfield
1979 – Plainfield – first time
1978 – Mother Seton – first time
1977 – Union Catholic – first time
1976 – Benedictine – first time


Union Catholic 8
Plainfield 6
Roselle Catholic 6
Elizabeth 4
New Providence 3
Linden 3
Scotch Plains-Fanwood 3
Patrick School 3
Governor Livingston 2
Westfield 2
Cranford 2
Benedictine 1
Mother Seton 1
Hillside 1
Summit 1
Union 1
Roselle 1

Photos Courtesy of head coach Chrystal Rinehold