UNION COUNTY, NJ — The hottest boys basketball teams heading into January’s Union County Conference competition include Linden High School leading the Watchung Division, New Providence High School in the Mountain Division and Abraham Clark High School in the Valley Division.
Linden brought a 6-1 overall record and 3-0 Watchung Division mark into the scheduled divisional home game against Westfield High School on Tuesday, Jan. 3, after press time. The Tigers have a big divisional game against Elizabeth High School on Thursday, Jan. 5, at 7 p.m. at Elizabeth’s Thomas Dunn Sports Center. Elizabeth began the week 3-4 overall, but 3-0 in the Watchung Division.
The last time these longtime neighborhood rivals met was in last year’s thrilling North 2, Group 4 sectional state championship game at Linden, where Elizabeth prevailed by the final score of 49-47. Elizabeth went on to win the overall Group 4 state championship for the first time since 1991 and then reached the Tournament of Champions semifinals before finishing 20-7. Linden closed at 16-11.
Both Linden and Elizabeth began the week undefeated against Union County competition. Linden’s lone loss was to a team from Maryland last week, while Elizabeth lost by 3 at St. Peter’s Preparatory School 41-38 in its season opener on Thursday, Dec. 15, and then last week fell to two teams, one from Virginia and one from Pennsylvania.
New Providence and Abraham Clark also began the week undefeated against Union County opponents. The Pioneers, as of Tuesday, Jan. 3, were 5-1 overall and leading the Mountain Division at 1-0 with a win against Cranford High School. Their only loss was at Chatham High School by 2 in last week’s Cougar Classic at Chatham.
Abraham Clark was 7-1 overall and 4-0 in the Valley Division. Abraham Clark’s lone loss going into this week’s play was to St. Augustine in last week’s Joe Silver Holiday Tournament at Hillside High School. The Rams beat Hillside 57-52 two days before.
Abraham Clark was scheduled to play at New Providence on Tuesday, Jan. 3, in a high-profile UCC crossover game. The Rams are scheduled to play Hillside again on Thursday, Jan. 5, this time at home in a tipoff scheduled for 5:30 p.m.
Because of its national schedule against mostly out-of-state opponents, defending champion Roselle Catholic High School is not in the Union County Conference’s Watchung Division this year. The Lions will still participate in the Union County Tournament and the state playoffs that will follow at season’s end.
There will be no more Tournament of Champions, which ran from 1989 to 2022, with the exception of 2020 and 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Roselle Catholic won the TOC for the fourth and final time last year by beating Camden High School in the final.
There were 32 TOCs in all, with St. Anthony High School of Jersey City winning the most with 13. St. Patrick High School of Elizabeth won six; the only other school to win more than one was Seton Hall Preparatory School with two. Elizabeth was the only other Union County school to win the TOC, with the Minutemen capturing the second one in 1990. The only four public schools to win the TOC were Elizabeth High School in 1990, Shawnee High School in 1992, Orange High School in 1994 and Camden High School in 2000.
Former longtime Elizabeth High School boys basketball assistant coach Anthony Drejaj is in his fifth season at the helm of the Tigers, with Linden off to its best start under his guidance. Junior guard Nasir Robinson began the week leading the team in scoring with 119 points.
Linden began with a 68-43 Watchung Division home win against Plainfield on Thursday, Dec. 15. Two days later, the Tigers defeated Shore Conference power Manasquan High School 49-41.
Linden then defeated Union High School 63-39 at home in Watchung Division action on Thursday, Dec. 22, and followed that up with a 63-57 division win on the road at Union Catholic High School.
The Tigers improved to 5-0 with a 64-54 win against Polytech High School from Woodside, Del. In last week’s Governor’s Challenge Basketball Showcase in Salisbury, Md., Linden’s sixth triumph was a 64-53 decision against Father Judge High School, Philadelphia, in the showcase.
In Elizabeth’s 78-61 loss to Moon Area High School, Moon Township, Pa., in last week’s Governors Challenge Basketball Tournament, Cameron McRae paced the Minutemen with an 18-point effort.
Junior forward Corey Rust began the week as New Providence High School’s leading scorer with 82 points, while three players had more than 100 points for Abraham Clark head coach Chris Kelley’s Rams: senior Tahdir Carson at 113, Zaire Carter at 112 and Isaiah Fuller at 103. The Pioneers are still guided by veteran mentor Art Cattano, who guided New Providence’s 1998-1999 team to the overall Group 1 state championship.