Wins First Sectional Championship In Thirteen Years, 58-47
By Greg Machos
March 3, 2008
ELIZABETH, NJ—Over the past week, there had better a lot of chatter on the message boards at NJ.com, particularly in the statewide forum. Full of pride after three teams from the Watchung Conference reached the Final Four of the always rough and tumble, North Jersey Section 2 Group IV State Tournament, many of the Mighty Watchung followers boasted of their success, and felt nothing but pity for what they had called, "Poor little Piscataway." However, the Chiefs like the South Brunswick Vikings the year before, were the last team you'd want to take lightly. When, backed into a corner, and underestimated, P-Way is one of the best team's not only in the GMC, but also in the entire state. Piscataway had been upended in the semifinals of the 2008 Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament by St. Joseph's in one of the biggest surprises of the 2007-08 season in Middlesex County. The loss was a good thing for the Chiefs. In the second half of the season through the upset loss in the GMCT Final Four, Piscataway had lost its edge, and the defeat to the surprising Falcons served as a much needed wake-up call.
Add to that the thought of having to go up against some of the top public schools in the state such as Linden, Plainfield, Elizabeth, Bridgewater-Raritan, Watchung Hills, and Bayonne, the Chiefs were now motivated to make a memorable run. After defeating Watchung Hills, the 2008 Somerset County Tournament Champion, in the Quarterfinal round of the state tourney, the Chiefs, which hadn't lost a game at home this season, upended an upstart Union team coached by former P-Way coach, Tony DiGiovanni, and that won a hard fought game over Cardinal McCarrick in South Amboy on February 9th (51-47). Many contended that the Farmers would be too much for the Chiefs with the likes of a front line that consisted of Travis Taylor as well as two players over 6'6", but Piscataway has plenty of size themselves with Tristian Benjamin, J.D. Griggs, and junior reserve, Aaron Hush. In additiion, the Chiefs were yet to lose a game at home this season 12-0, and more importantly, the hunger, the intensity, and the fire was back in Piscataway.
Laying before the Chiefs was an obstacle that was, in past years much more formidable, in two time defending Group IV State Champion, Linden, but still with the likes of senior guard, Desmond Wade along with 6'9" center David Bruce, and former Rahway transfer, Jerelle Louis as well as one of the top coaches in the state in Phil Colicchio, the Tigers were still a feared team that was not to be underestimated. Despite the losses of such talented players as Darrell Lampley, Ahmad Harris, Jonathan Jones, Jerry Jones, Muhammad Wilkerson, and George Bease, the Tigers still entered the contest with a 23-6 mark that included wins over powerhouse programs as Mount Vernon of New York, a school that has produced the likes of Ben Gordon of the Chicago Bulls and Rutgers player, Mike Coburn, St. Raymond's team that defeated Paterson Catholic in a shootout earlier this year at the 2007 Tip-Off Classic, Neptune, and St. Joseph's of Montvale at the Tip-Off Classic as well as won two of three games at the Bayball Classic Christmas Tournament in Delaware over the holidays. Although Colicchio was honored as Coach of the Year by The Home News-Tribune two seasons ago for that great Linden run that saw the Tigers win the North Jersey Section 2 Group IV title as a fifth seed, and then go on to win the state semifinal, and its first of two state titles against a litany of teams sprinkled about in the Star-Ledger Top 20 at the time, his coaching effort this season was far greater, and more worthy of such an honor in the sense that he had much less to work with than two years ago.
The Tigers began their quest for a third straight sectional and state title with a first round matchup at home with a familiar opponent in Watchung Conference rival Elizabeth, which is now coached by former South Brunswick head coach, Chris Balent. These two teams played each other three times with the Tigers winning each time including a regular season matchup at the Dunn Center on January 22nd (57-53), and the Quarterfinals of the Union County Tournament (61-57). In the third installment of this year's edition of this long running, and heated rivalry between two traditional powers in not only Union County, but also in the entire State of New Jersey, Bruce came up with a double-double of 22 points and 10 rebounds while Wade and Louis each added 17 points each in a 73-62 victory at Linden High School on February 25th. Two days later, the Tigers put on their road orange uniforms, and traveled to Middlesex County to take on a Stevens team that was playing its first state playoff game in over a decade. For three quarters, the Hawks, which had their best season since the days of Tony Newsom, Rocky Pravato, and George Bowen, fought valiantly for three quarters as it only trailed by a score of 48-44 heading into the fourth.
However, what had been a great season for J.P. Stevens, and a foreshadowing of what to come next season when its talented junior class of Kenny Bland, Myles Reuben, Nick Pol, Tahir Swinton, and Herb Smith all become seasons, would come to an end. According to the article from the Home News-Tribune, Wade went 10 of 20 from the floor, and connected on 15 of 17 foul shots for a career high 35 points. Combined with the typical stingy defense from the rest of the Tigers, Linden outscored JPS by a 22-9 margin in the final period to pull away for the 70-53 win. The Union County school got the benefits of Plainfield's upset of top seeded Bridgewater-Raritan, and hosted the semifinal game against the eighth seeded Cardinals, which defeated the Tigers in overtime on opening day (70-66). As one Linden fan carped on the message board that night, "It ended where it began." Linden, which avenged its opening day loss with a 71-55 win at Plainfield on January 15th, won the rubber match between the two schools in a defensive struggle, 49-44. As always, Linden had taken on just about everyone, but this program, which has enjoyed such a fine run these past two years, was taking on a Piscataway team that not only had plenty of size, athleticism, and depth, but played defense much like many of the foes the Tigers faced during the season in the Watchung Conference.
It seemed as if the Linden fans knew that this could be the end. For the first three quarters of the game, there wasn't that same enthusiasm, or confidence that they carried with them during much if not all of the two year run of state titles. Piscataway wasn't intimidated by the fact that the Tigers were ranked fifth in the Star-Ledger Top 20. The Chiefs were always a team that did well when you bet against it. They were more comfortable in their familar role as giant killers like they were in the 2007 GMCT, or even as recent as this season when it defeated Immaculata and Seton Hall Prep in the 2007 Vaughn Stapleton Classic in Bridgewater. Perhaps, the Linden fans not only knew that the Chiefs played a similar style, especially on defense, but were also unfazed by the aura the Tigers carried as a program these past few seasons. Both teams would battle to an 8-8 tie in the first quarter, and Linden actually had leads of 12-10, and 14-12 midway through the second. But, those would be the last leads that the Tigers would have in this game as the Chiefs embarked on a decisive 12-0 tear over a span of about four minutes or so to take a 24-14 lead before Wade scored a field goal to close out the opening half with the Chiefs leading, 24-16. Then, at the start of the second half, the Chiefs added a 8-1 spurt to take what seemed to be a commanding, 32-17 lead with about 5:30 to go in the third quarter.
Showing the heart and determination of a champion, Linden fought back with a 14-2 tear over the next three minutes to pull within three at 34-31 as the Linden faithful finally began to make their presence felt, and if you were a Piscataway, or GMC fan, you had to wonder if the Chiefs had it in them to weather this storm. Weathered the storm they did though as they scored the last three points of the third to take a six point, 37-31, lead going into the fourth. After that, the Tigers were unable to get any closer than five points as P-Way eventually pulled away for its first sectional crown since 1995, the year after it won the state title in 1994 over Teaneck. Leading the way was senior forward, J.D. Griggs. Headed to Iowa on a football scholarship, after garnering interest from other schools such as Syracuse, scored a team high 18 points on seven field goals including a two handed jam to wrap up the historic win, and four free throws while collecting 9 rebounds. Chipping in was Omar Smith as the senior swingman added 15 points on five field goals including a three pointer from the right wing late in the first half to highlight the decisive 12-0 run, and four foul shots while Tristian Benjamin contributed with 11 points on five field goals and a free throw. Benjamin's lone foul shot was a bonus free throw that completed a three point play for a 27-16 early third quarter lead, and began the 8-1 spurt to open the second half for the 32-17 lead.
The reserves also played key roles. Although starting senior guards, Bryan Waluk (5 points on five free throws including several down the stretch to seal the win) and James White (4 points on a field goal and two free throws) got themselves into foul trouble trying to guard Wade, and White even eventually fouled out with 2:49 left in the contest, the Chiefs were able to get fine defensive efforts from juniors Thomas Bennett (a point on a free throw), and Justin Blake (a field goal for two points). Aaron Hush also helped Griggs, Smith, and Benjamin in the paint, particularly with the taller Bruce, who has had a number of monster games this season. Junior reserve guard, Jeff Adkins and sophomore reserve forward, Wayne Newsome also played, but didn't score for the Chiefs. Meanwhile, for the Linden Tigers, Wade led all scorers on the night with a game high 19 points on six field goals including a three pointer that banked in from way beyond the arc with 1:43 left to pull his team to within single digits at 51-42, and six free throws. Louis chipped in with nine points including two huge three point bombs that looked like 30 foot shots during the third quarter rally that got the Tigers within three while Bruce was limited to just six points on three field goals. Xavier Freeman contributed with 7 points on four free throws, and a rainbow three pointer with less than a minute remaining that made it a seven point game at 54-47. Charlton Wilson, the younger brother of Mika Wilson, who also played freshman ball at Cardinal McCarrick in the 2004-05 season, came off the bench to score four points on two field goals.
Romell Bateman rounded out the scoring for the Tigers with a field goal for two points while freshman Elijah Hodge, junior Tevin Calhoun, and Anderson St. Germain all played, but didn't score. For the game, the Chiefs outscored the Tigers in two of the four periods with Linden getting the third quarter edge, and the first frame ending in a draw. P-Way scored in double figures in three of the four periods while Linden only did that in two of the periods. Piscataway accumulated its 58 points on 20 field goals including a three pointer, and 17 free throws while Linden tabulated its 47 on 15 field goals including four treys, and 13 foul shots. The first quarter was a defensive "slobberknocker" as WWE commentator Jim Ross would call it. Although Piscataway jumped out to a 6-3 lead at one point in the period, but Linden managed to score five of the last seven points to knot things up at 8-8 in what would be the lowest scoring stanza in the entire contest. Benjamin opened up the scoring with his typical galloping drive through the paint for a layup that made it 2-0. Wade then got a field goal to tie the game at 2-2 before P-Way got four of the next five points including a field goal by Smith for the three point lead at the three minute mark. Wade, who accounted for Linden's only point during the run with one of two free throws, then netted another one of two at the 2:29 mark for a 6-4 Chief lead, and then Griggs made one of two at the line for a 7-4 advantage with 1:50 to go in the period.
Linden then scored a field goal as Wade found Bruce for a layup, and a 7-6 Piscataway lead at the 1:30 mark. Then, after a one of two showing at the line by White with a minute left in the first, the Tigers closed out the opening frame with a field goal courtesy of a Bruce layup off another assist by White that knotted the score at 8-8. Bruce scored four of his six points on the game in just a span of the final 1:30 of the period while Wade was responsible for the other four Linden points. In the second quarter, things started out as even steven as the first ended, but it soon turned into a 16-8 P-Way showing for an eight point halftime lead thanks to the critical 12-0 spurt. Just moments into the second half, Linden had a chance to go ahead as the Tigers again got the ball to Bruce for a scoring attempt, and drew a foul. However, with just 12 seconds gone by in the new half, the 6'9" junior center, misfired on both free throw attempts, and the score remained, 8-8. Smith then missed a jumper that would have given the Chiefs the lead, but Linden couldn't take advantage as it turned the ball over moments later at the 7:20 mark. On a subsequent Piscataway possession, Blake got his only field goal as he scored on a putback of a missed jumper by White for a 10-8 lead at the 6:55 mark. Twenty seconds later, Wade responded with a running one hander that squared the contest at 10-10. Linden then took the lead as Wade found Wilson for a layup that made the score, 12-10 with about six minutes to go before the intermission.
A short time later, on Piscataway's next offensive sequence, the Chiefs got a jumper from near the foul line by Griggs for a 12-12 tie with 5:42 left in the half. The game continued to go back and forth as Linden would get another score for a 14-12 lead, but then P-Way began to take control of the situation with its 12-0 tear. Highlighting the run, was a three pointer by Smith, the only Chief trey of the game, from the right wing off a kick out by White at the 1:30 mark for a 22-14 lead as Linden called for time. Following the timeout, Benjamin capped the outburst with a putback off a missed three pointer by Smith for the 24-14 lead. Wade then closed out the first half scoring with a field goal that made it 24-16 at the half. At the start of the third quarter, it appeared that Piscataway was about to blow the game wide open. Scoring eight of the first nine points of the second half, the Chiefs had actually outscored the Tigers by a margin of 20-3 over a span of roughly eight minutes for the seemingly commanding, 32-17 lead. Benjamin started the early second half assault, with a three point play just 14 seconds into the third period for a 27-16 lead. The junior forward then followed that up with one of two from the line for a 28-16 advantage at the 7:10 mark. Wade answered that with one of two free throws of his own with 6:42 left in the third before P-Way reeled off the next four points on two free throws by Smith, and then a drive for a layup in traffic by Benjamin, who had six points in the run for the 15 point lead before Bruce got his final bucket of the game on a jumper that made the score, 32-19 with 5:22 left in the third.
Bruce's final score of the game sparked a rally by Linden that could be characterized as the last stand of a proud program's reign. Over the next 1:19, the Tigers scored five more points including a drive through the middle for a layup by Wade, and a three point bomb from about 30 to 35 feet on the left wing by Louis to close the gap to eight at 32-24 with 4:03 to go in the period. Then, over the next 1:34, the defending state champs, fought with the character of one with seven of the next nine points including another NBA range three point shot by Louis that not only closed the gap to three at 34-31, but also finally got the Linden faithful really stirring for the first time in the entire contest. On the Chiefs next possession, the game appeared to be slipping away as they turned the ball over prompting four year head coach, Guy Jensen, to call a timeout with 2:14 to go in the stanza. Following the timeout, Piscataway scored the last three points of the period that included a huge break for the GMC school. After Smith made one of two foul shots at the 1:13 mark to stem the tide while making the score, 35-31, the Chiefs got a score from Griggs on a putback. On a missed front end of a one and one by Smith at the 32 second mark, Griggs, who was much taller than Linden's Wilson outreached the Tiger reserve, and tapped in a bucket on the follow for a pivotal score a 37-31 lead after three quarters of play.
At the start of the fourth, the GMC Red Division Champs took an eight point, 39-31 lead as Bennett zipped a great pass to Hush for a layup, and his only points of the game at the 7:40 mark. Linden managed to bring the deficit back down to six again as Freeman netted two of his four free throws on the night at the 7:02 mark for a 39-33 score. A little bit more than a half minute later, Louis stepped to the line, and made one of two more to close the gap to five at 39-34 with 6:30 remaining. On a subsequent Chief possession, Griggs scored on a layup off an assist from Benjamin for a 41-34 lead with about six minutes to go. Both teams then scored three points each over the next 2:26 as the Chiefs maintained their seven point advantage now at 44-37 before Wade connected on a pair from the charity stripe for a 44-39 score with 3:34 to play. Twenty-eight seconds later, Benjamin scored on a follow off a missed shot by White that put P-Way back up by seven, 46-39. Moments later, Linden had an opportunity to pull within five again with the Houston bound Wade stepping to the line with 2:49 to go. However, the senior misfired on both free throws, and the Chiefs took advantage by scoring the next five points including a layup by Smith from Waluk prior to a P-Way timeout with 2:34 to go, and then a pair of free throws by Waluk that made the score, 51-39 before Wade struck for a long three that banked in, and made it a nine point contest again at 51-42 with 1:43 left.
Linden did what it could to keep battling by hitting threes, and managing the clock as best it could, but it simply ran out of time. A great run by a public school program that took on the St. Anthony's, St. Patrick's, Seton Hall Preps, and Bloomfield Tech's of the world in what many in the media two seasons ago had characterized the modern day New Jersey version of Hoosiers, had come to an end as Piscataway won its first sectional championship since John Celestand and Justin Bailey helped guide the school to a Central Jersey Group IV crown in 1995, one year after winning the school's only state title. With the victory, the Chiefs improved to 23-4 on the season, and a 6-2 mark against non-conference opponents including a 3-0 record against teams from the Watchung Conference. Piscataway also advances to the Group IV State Semifinal on Wednesday night against Paterson Eastside with the winner to play for the State Championship at high noon on Sunday at the Rutgers Athletic Center. P-Way is also now in the driver's seat for the 2008 GMC Hoops Trophy. With McCarrick losing to St. Rose in the Non-Public B South State Tournament semifinals on Monday night, all Piscataway needs to do is win on Wednesday night for their first ever trophy. A loss, however, gives the Eagles their third. The Tigers end their fine season at 23-7.
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