UNION, NJ — Union High School boys basketball head coach Kevin Feeley made it very clear on Saturday, Feb. 5.
“We must play better defense,” the man in charge of the Farmers proclaimed.
Union’s boys basketball team concluded its regular season schedule on Saturday, Feb. 5, at home with a come-from-behind 71-68 overtime triumph against West Caldwell Tech.
It was an intense battle that saw Union up by only one at the end of the first quarter — Union began the game with a 10-0 lead — and then WCT had one-point leads at the end of the second and third quarter. Trailing by eight, 59-51, with 4:15 remaining, Union went on an 8-0 run to tie the game and eventually forced overtime by outscoring the Essex County school by one point in the fourth quarter.
Union scored first and never trailed in overtime, winning the extra session 10-7.
Union, the sixth seed, has been preparing all week long for its Union County Tournament first-round contest on Thursday, Feb. 9, at home against 11th-seeded Abraham Clark High School or 14th-seeded Cranford High School. Abraham Clark was scheduled to host Cranford on Tuesday, Feb. 7, in one of six preliminary round games that kicked off the 86th annual UCT, which is the oldest county tournament in the state.
Union is 11-9 and the winner of five of its last seven games, including a 61-53 triumph at home against Cranford in the UCC-crossover clash on Friday, Feb. 3. The Farmers finished fifth out of the six teams in the final UCC-Watchung Division standings, with a 3-7 record. Union swept last-place Plainfield High School and split with fourth-place Westfield High School for its three division victories.
Cranford, which began the week with an overall record of 5-17, finished tied for fourth in the UCC’s Mountain Division standings at 3-7, along with Hillside High School.
Abraham Clark, 18-3 overall as of Monday, Feb. 6, had a one-game lead over New Providence High School for the UCC’s Valley Division crown. Abraham Clark and New Providence, which split against each other, still have one more division game to play. New Providence also split with Summit High School in the division.
Elizabeth High School won the Watchung Division at 9-1, splitting only with Union Catholic High School. Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School won the Mountain Division with a perfect 10-0.
“It’s been a fun conference this year,” Feeley said. “There have been a lot of close, really competitive games from a lot of teams in all the divisions.”
The four winners on Thursday, Feb. 9, advance to the UCT quarterfinals on Saturday, Feb. 11. The semifinals are Tuesday, Feb. 14, and the final may be moved to Sunday, Feb. 19, at Kean University, due to the Kean men’s basketball team possibly playing a tournament game at home on Saturday, Feb. 18.
Back-and-forth affair vs. West Caldwell Tech
Down eight with a little more than four minutes to go, host Union saw a back-and-forth affair go the way of visiting West Caldwell Tech as the Essex County school went on an 8-0 run to take control with the game’s biggest second-half advantage.
In order to prevent a third loss in four games, the Farmers needed to step up and in a hurry.
“One of the hardest things in coaching is to eliminate your frustration,” Feeley said.
All Union could do at that point was to play better defensively and try to chip away. The Farmers did not get off to a good start, after missing their first two field goal attempts.
“We had to increase our pressure and trap and the kids had to make plays,” Feeley said.
That began with two free throws by Bradley Emilzo, a reverse layup by Elijah Blackwell, two more free throws by Ralph Brucal and then a basket underneath, off a pass by Michael Roseberry, to Riley Flood.
Union tied the game with a minute to go.
Then WCT came right back when Jesus Koudou scored inside with 43 seconds left.
A layup by Flood, after Union missed its share in regulation time, tied the game again with 27 seconds left.
Blackwell then came up with a big steal and was able to drive to the hoop and rush a shot that almost went in before the buzzer.
Blackwell began the overtime scoring with a big three-point basket from the left side that rattled off the rim and fell through. That field goal proved to be the game-winning shot, giving Union the lead for good as the Farmers outlasted WCT in a hard-fought 71-68 decision at Louis J. Rettino Gymnasium.
Union’s remaining schedule now consists of only Union County Tournament and North 2, Group 4 state playoff games ahead.
WCT came in with a record of 14-7 and left the gym after Aziz Sutton-Shorter produced an impressive, game-high 28-point performance. The junior guard made numerous big shots that put his team ahead throughout.
Union made it look easy with a 10-0 start that included connecting on four layups. However, WCT gave the Farmers their money’s worth as the game went along, taking one-point leads at the half and at the end of three quarters, after Union led by one following the game’s first eight minutes of play.
“They came to play,” Feeley said. “You can see how they won 14 games.”
Blackwell’s steal at the end of the fourth quarter ensured that the Farmers would not have their hearts broken again by a shot at the buzzer, which was the case at Union Catholic on Wednesday, Feb. 1.
Blackwell scored seven of Union’s 10 points in overtime, including a perfect four-for-four from the free throw line. Flood made two free throws and Roseberry one for Union’s other OT scoring.
“First, Elijah’s steal of the ball to send the game to overtime was big,” Feeley said. “He’s who we want at the line as well. He’s been big for us there all year long.”
Blackwell paced Union with 20 points, while Flood was next with 19.
Also scoring in double-digits for WCT were Koudou with 13 and Zayd Isa with 10.
Union improved to 11-9 with its second straight win and fifth in its last seven games. The Farmers began last week with a 46-40 loss at home to Colonia High School on Tuesday, Jan. 31, followed by the 58-57 setback at Union Catholic on Wednesday, Feb. 1. Union rebounded to hold off Cranford 61-53 at home on Friday, Feb. 3.
“We gave up 58 to UC, 53 to Cranford and now 68 here, so we have to get back to the basics, defensively,” Feeley said. “We were holding teams down in the 40s before that.
“We pride ourselves on defense. We need to get better now.”
West Caldwell Tech (14-8) 18 17 13 13 07 – 68
Union (11-9) 19 15 13 14 10 – 71
West Caldwell Tech (68):
1-Aziz Sutton-Shorter, 6-3-7-28
0-Jesus Koudou, 4-1-2-13
4-Danny Okoli, 0-0-1-1
10-Javier Bennett, 0-0-2-2
12-Zayd Isa, 2-2-0-10
13-Joel Desuze, 1-0-4-6
15-Alzahir Curry, 0-0-0-0
11-Dasir Nelson, 1-2-0-8
Union Farmers (71):
1-O’Malley King, 2-0-2-6
11-Kasie McDowell, 2-0-1-5
12-Kameron McGainey, 4-0-0-8
13-Ralph Brucal, 2-0-4-8
15-Michael Roseberry, 0-0-1-1
2-Elijah Blackwell, 2-3-7-20
4-Bradley Emilzo, 1-0-2-4
5-Riley Flood, 7-0-5-19
2023 Boys Basketball
Union County Tournament
1-Roselle Catholic. 2-Elizabeth. 3-Linden. 4-Union Catholic. 5-Westfield. 6-Union. 7-Scotch Plains-Fanwood. 8-Plainfield. 9-Oratory Preparatory. 10-Summit. 11-Abraham Clark. 12-New Providence. 13-Hillside. 14-Cranford. 15-Rahway. 16-Governor Livingston. 17-Jonathan Dayton. 18-Arthur L. Johnson.
Tuesday, Feb. 7
17-Jonathan Dayton at 8-Plainfield
16-Governor Livingston at 9-Summit
13-Hillside at 12-New Providence
14-Cranford at 11-Abraham Clark
18-Arthur L. Johnson at 7-Scotch Plains-Fanwood
15-Rahway at 10-Oratory Preparatory
Thursday, Feb. 9
17-Jonathan Dayton/8-Plainfield vs. 16-Governor Livingston/9-Summit
13-Hillside/12-New Providence at 5-Westfield
14-Cranford/11-Abraham Clark at 6-Union
15-Rahway/10-Oratory Preparatory vs. 18-Arthur L. Johnson/7-Scotch Plains-Fanwood
Saturday, Feb. 11
1-Roselle Catholic vs. 8-Plainfield or lower
4-Union Catholic vs. 5-Westfield or lower
2-Elizabeth vs. 7-Scotch Plains-Fanwood or lower
3-Linden vs. 6-Union or lower
Tuesday, Feb. 14
Saturday, Feb. 18
Sunday, Feb. 19
at Kean University
Photo by JR Parachini