CRANFORD, NJ — Basketball teams can’t wait to play that first game in December, the week before the holidays, after a long first month of practice.
Because COVID-19 put Cranford on hold all of last week, it must have seemed like a trip back to the preseason for the Cougars, who got five games in before having to halt their season temporarily.
Cranford’s boys basketball team was able to get back on the court and compete again Saturday, Jan. 8, facing Sparta High School from Sussex County in a game billed as Coaches vs. Cancer at Montgomery High School in Skillman.
After clinging to a slim, 1-point lead at intermission, the Cougars found themselves behind by 7 entering the fourth quarter.
“After being shut down a week, we started the game rusty, and Sparta played really tough all game,” said Cranford fourth-year head coach Sean Trotter.
Limited to six players, Cranford made the most of its production, with all six filling the hoop and three of them reaching double digits.
One of those three was senior Liam Kwiatkowski, who paced Cranford with 11 points. After not playing in the team’s season-opening 72-64 home triumph against Union County Conference–Mountain Division foe Oratory Prep on Saturday, Dec. 18, Kwiatkowski scored a total of 61 points in Cranford’s next five games.
There’s one other thing the three-year varsity performers were able to accomplish against Sparta.
“Liam hit a 3 with two seconds left, to send the game to overtime,” Trotter said.
Cranford then dominated the extra session by outscoring Sparta by 8 points, en route to a decisive 49-41 triumph.
Cranford improved to 4-2, while Sparta slipped to 3-2.
After being outscored 13-5 in the third quarter, Cranford outscored Sparta 14-7 in the fourth and 9-1 in overtime. Down by 7 going into the game’s final eight minutes, from the fourth quarter on, Cranford gave up only 8 points with the game on the line.
“We talked after the third quarter about picking it up on the defensive end,” Trotter said.
Also scoring in double figures for the Cougars were seniors Zion Hammond and Abdel Elashry, both finishing with 10. Netting 9 points was senior Lukas Ruby, followed by 6 points from junior Kyle Fay and 3 more from junior Ryan Lynskey.
“Our guys just battled, and then we made some huge shots down the stretch,” Trotter said.
Kwiatkowski made two of Cranford’s four 3-pointers. Elashry poured in the other two. Hammond made four of Cranford’s 13 successful free throws. All six Cranford players made at least one free throw.
Sparta’s Nick Ryan was the game’s high scorer with a 14-point performance.
Cranford was scheduled to play on Tuesday, Jan. 11, at home against Mountain Division rival Scotch Plains, after press time. The Cougars began the week with a 1-0 record in the Mountain Division, with their victory against Oratory Prep.
The Mountain Division is the same as last year and includes Cranford, Hillside, New Providence, Oratory Prep, Rahway, Scotch Plains and Summit.
After falling at home to Valley Division foe Governor Livingston High School in Berkeley Heights, 45-38, on Tuesday, Dec. 21, Cranford won two of three games played at Chatham High School the last week in December. The Cougars defeated Madison High School and New Providence High School and, in between, lost to host Chatham.
The game against New Providence at Chatham was not a division game. Cranford is scheduled to play at New Providence now on Tuesday, Jan. 18, and will host the Pioneers on Tuesday, Feb. 1; those two games will be considered Mountain Division contests. The game on Tuesday, Feb. 1, is also slated to be senior night for the Cougars.
Cranford is scheduled to host Mountain Division rival Rahway High School on Thursday, Jan. 13, at 4 p.m. and Middlesex High School on Friday, Jan. 14, at 5:30 p.m.
Cranford’s next scheduled road game is its Mountain Division clash at New Providence High School on Tuesday, Jan. 18.
Cranford went 9-5 overall last year and 8-4 in the Mountain Division. Kwiatkowski, Hammond, Fay and Ruby are returning players.