UNION COUNTY, NJ — While it’s easy to handicap the top two seeds making it to the championship game, there is usually an upset or two when it comes to the history of the girls basketball Union County Tournament.
It’s time to see if there will be any upsets in the present and near future.
The 47th annual girls basketball UCT was put together last week, with defending champion New Providence High School earning the top seed. Westfield High School, the 2020 champion, is the second seed.
They were also the top two seeds last year, with top-seeded New Providence defeating second-seeded and defending champion Westfield 56-46 in the championship game, played at Kean University’s Harwood Arena in Union.
There was no tournament in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
New Providence won the crown last year for only the second time and the first time since 1990. Westfield’s UCT championships were won in 2008 and 2020.
It’s no surprise that New Providence, the defending champion for the first time since 1991, is the top seed for the second straight season.
New Providence, 15-3, coming off a 20-point win at home on Monday, Jan. 30 against a 17-2 squad from Pope John XXIII Regional High School in Sparta, has just one loss in-county — splitting Union County Conference-Watchung Division games with Westfield.
New Providence won at Westfield 48-44 on Saturday, Dec. 17, and then Westfield won at New Providence 61-48 on Thursday, Jan. 12. New Providence has won seven straight since. The only other Pioneer losses came to St. John Vianney High School and Red Bank Catholic High School away from home.
On Wednesday, Feb. 1, at home, New Providence defeated Roselle Catholic High School 64-37. The Pioneers previously defeated the Lions by 29 points in Roselle on Saturday, Jan. 28, which enabled the Pioneers to repeat as Watchung Division champions.
Westfield, the 2020 UCT champ, earned the second seed for the second straight season, based on having just two in-county setbacks — splitting with Watchung Division foes New Providence and Roselle Catholic. The Blue Devils were 12-5 after falling at 14-1 Randolph High School 40-38 on Saturday, Jan. 28. Westfield finished second in the Watchung Division for the second consecutive year.
The committee decided to seed Cranford High School third, Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School fourth and Roselle Catholic fifth — three more Watchung Division schools — ahead of 20-0 Elizabeth High School, which captured the Mountain Division championship.
Elizabeth lost its first game at Jonathan Dayton High School 63-58 in overtime on Wednesday, Feb. 1. The Minutemen, which began the week 20-1, won the Mountain Division championship at 11-1, splitting only with Jonathan Dayton.
Governor Livingston High School is the seventh seed and Cranford the eighth.
Before last year, New Providence had captured the UCT just once, in 1990, when present head coach Cap Pazdera was a high school junior at New Providence.
Last year was the first year, with Pazdera’s guidance, that the Pioneers earned the top seed, advanced to the championship game and then won the title contest.
This year, New Providence is the defending champion for the first time with Pazdera calling the shots.
“I think you have to give the nod to the teams in the upper (Watchung) division, records aside,” Pazdera said, when asked about how the UCT would be seeded.
Cranford began 1-7, but has won nine of its last 12 to get to .500 at 10-10. The Cougars swept Scotch Plains-Fanwood in Watchung Division play. Roselle Catholic had a 10-point win against Westfield.
Elizabeth has played just one game against a Watchung Division team, beating Summit High School, which is near the bottom of the standings this season.
Elizabeth will now get its opportunity on the court to show how good it can be against Watchung Division competition, should the Minutemen get past fellow Mountain Division squad Plainfield High School in a first-round contest. Elizabeth’s next UCT game would then be, barring an upset, against third-seeded Watchung Division opponent Cranford in a quarterfinal on Saturday, Feb. 10.
“We look at the tournament this way – everyone’s a threat,” Pazdera said.
Last year, New Providence ousted 16th-seeded Union High School 65-25 at home in the first round and then knocked off ninth-seeded Elizabeth 70-26 in a quarterfinal played at Arthur L. Johnson High School in Clark.
The Pioneers then won in the semifinals through Pazdera’s leadership, defeating fourth-seeded Summit 66-26 at Rahway High School.
Then, New Providence downed second-seeded and defending champion Westfield 56-46 at Harwood Arena in the championship game.
“To win, it took a total team effort, and that meant that our other players had to step up,” Pazdera said.
New Providence leading scorers Meghan Lamanna, a senior guard, and Grace Kinum, a junior guard, expect the Pioneers to be fully prepared for whichever team they go up against.
“It doesn’t matter who we play, we just want to win,” Lamanna said. “We just want to continue to play the best we can.”
“We have to continue to play our game,” Kinum said. “That’s [to] play as a team, which means contributions from everyone. Run and play fast.”
Junior forward Jasmine Miller excelled against Pope John XXIII, leading all scorers with a season-high and career-high 18 points. Miller also contributed eight rebounds, one assist, two blocks and three steals.
Although Cranford is the three seed, the Cougars have lost to New Providence and Westfield twice by double-digits. Still, Cranford did not give up when it was 1-7 and found a way to make this season a successful one.
“We’ve overcome some adversity and have gained some confidence,” third-year head coach Allison Skrec said.
As a player, Skrec was a big part of two Roselle Catholic teams that won county championships in 2009 and 2010.
“There’s always so much on the line in these games,” Skrec said. “The teams are really competitive and there are always a lot of talented players and coaches.”
Elizabeth is guided by first-year head coach Chrystal Rinehold, a 2006 Bound Brook graduate and longtime AAU coach.
All but two of the Minutemen’s wins have come by double-digits. The two that didn’t saw Elizabeth defeat Hanover Park High School 43-36 on Wednesday, Dec. 28, in the Pete Tierney Memorial Tournament at Summit and then, after blitzing Plainfield 80-30 at home on Thursday, Dec. 22, the Minutemen won at Plainfield 63-54 on Thursday, Jan 19.
Elizabeth was to face Plainfield on Wednesday, Feb. 8, for a third time when the Minutemen hosted the 11th-seeded Cardinals in a UCT first-round encounter.
“Getting the sixth seed raised some eyebrows, but we’ve been used to adversity and having to prove ourselves,” said Rinehold, who was previously an assistant coach at Elizabeth, in addition to teaching physical education at the Group 4 school the past 11 years. “Our girls are ready. We plan to keep on fighting and proving.”
If Elizabeth does get past Plainfield, then it’s all set up for the Minutemen, if they have designs to go all the way — they would then have to beat, barring upsets, three straight Watchung Division schools in third-seeded Cranford in the quarterfinals, second-seeded Westfield in the semifinals and then top-seeded and defending champion New Providence in the finals.
Elizabeth last reached the championship game in 2008, with Karen Pierre as head coach and senior center Quiana Porter leading the way. Westfield, guided by senior Erin Miller and head coach Joe Marino, who is now the head coach at Arthur L. Johnson, led the Blue Devils that year to the first of their two UCT titles. Present Westfield head coach Liz McKeon guided the Blue Devils to their second title in 2020.
“The girls have seen the [UCT] breakdown and they get fueled by stuff like that,” Rinehold said.
Elizabeth’s three UCT championships came back-to-back-to-back in 1995, 1996 and 1997 with head coach Bob Firestone, when they were contested at the Elizabeth Dunn Center. One of his top players was all-state guard Naimah Smith, who went on to play collegiately at Seton Hall University.
After falling in the semifinals in 1998 – Union Catholic defeated Oak Knoll in that season’s final – Elizabeth then lost the UCT final three years in a row, downed by first-time winner Summit in 1999, first-time champ Union in overtime in 2000 and then by Union Catholic in 2001, which is the last year Union Catholic won the crown.
“Our girls are all about making history,” Rinehold said. “We have a fan base that goes back to those days.”
As of last week, Elizabeth had seven players that have scored more than 100 points, including sophomore guard Alani Gordon with 199, freshman guard Jah’nae Lembrick with 196, sophomore guard Ashanti DeWalt with 165, junior forward Alexandra Koon with 156, senior guard Kezia Feaster with 149, junior guard-forward Dynasty Chandler with 141 and senior forward Damani Anderson with 127.
With five of those players eligible to return, Elizabeth’s future — most likely moving up in the Watchung Division next year — also looks bright.
“We’ve said all year long that we have more than five starters,” Rinehold said. “We start seven girls and never start the same group.
“Our point guards are big, strong and athletic and can play other positions. Defensively, we’re able to switch everything when we go man to man.
“We feel that we’re a hard team to scout. We break a lot of film down. It’s a chess game. We try to determine how teams would approach us.”
As of Monday, Feb. 6, much-improved Linden High School, at 9-3 and done with its division games, had a half game lead against Hillside, 8-3, for the Valley Division championship.
Abraham Clark, coached by Roselle Catholic graduate Billy Houck, was 12-5 overall and tied with Union at 8-4 for third place in the Valley Division.
Locations and times of the quarterfinals, semifinals and final are still to be determined.
The UCT final went from being played at the Dunn Center to being contested at Roselle Catholic from 2006 to 2010. It has been at Kean University since 2011.
2023 Girls Basketball Union County Tournament
1-New Providence. 2-Westfield. 3-Cranford. 4-Scotch Plains-Fanwood. 5-Roselle Catholic. 6-Elizabeth. 7-Governor Livingston. 8-Jonathan Dayton. 9-Union Catholic. 10-Oak Knoll. 11-Plainfield. 12-Summit. 13-Arthur L. Johnson. 14-Abraham Clark. 15-Hillside. 16-Linden. 17-Union. 18-Rahway. 19-Kent Place.
Monday, Feb. 6
17-Linden at 16-Union
18-Rahway at 15-Hillside
19-Kent Place at 14-Abraham Clark
Wednesday, Feb. 8
Top side of the bracket
17-Linden/16-Union at 1-New Providence
9-Union Catholic at 8-Jonathan Dayton
13-Arthur L. Johnson at 4-Scotch Plains-Fanwood
12-Summit at 5-Roselle Catholic
Bottom side of the bracket
18-Rahway/15-Hillside at 2-Westfield
10-Oak Knoll at 7-Governor Livingston
19-Kent Place/14-Abraham Clark at 3-Cranford
11-Plainfield at 6-Elizabeth
Friday, Feb. 10
Wednesday, Feb. 15
Saturday, Feb. 18