CLARK, NJ- Cranford High School senior Chris Libiera scored 19 points to lead the No. 16 seeded Cougars past the No. 9 seeded Arthur L. Johnson High School Crusaders by a final score of 57-55 Saturday afternoon in Clark in the first round of the Union County Tournament. The Cougars battled in the game and are confident of their schedule in the future.
“It’s a great win, really a team effort,” Libiera said. “We all came together as a team and won the game. We’re looking forward to Union, it’s going to be a good game.”
Senior Ryan Bakie scored 16 points, including four three-point baskets of his own to assist his team in the win. Momentum shifted over to Cranford as the second half began and they roared back into the game, holding a slim advantage throughout key portions of the second half.
“Going into the second half, we knew they were a well-coached team,” Bakie said. “We know they play hard and play a 32-minute game, so we knew coming out, we had to hold our ground, play tough defense. They have a lot of scoring, so we had to get there offensively. We knew defense was going to be key if we wanted to win the game in the second half.”
The first quarter between the two teams was close all-around, with basket after basket being drained. The Crusaders scored four late baskets, three from senior Brendan Stanzione, as the Crusaders led the Cougars 19-12 after the first quarter.
Johnson would carry it over into the second quarter, building a 27-18 lead with 3:12 remaining, before Cranford went on a 6-2 scoring run, receiving all those points from Libiera, to close the gap, cutting the Crusaders’ halftime lead down to 29-24.
As the second half began, Cranford would hang around before making themselves known as a good basketball team. Trailing 34-27 with 4:08 to go in the third quarter, senior Brian Oblachinski and Libiera drained a basket each and junior Colin Budries scored five points to tie the score at 36-36 heading into the fourth quarter.
“Even though we’re a senior-laden team, this is an inexperienced team,” Cranford head coach Ryan Huver said. “We’ve been playing a lot better lately these past couple of games and we’ve been playing as a team and we challenged them defensively. [George] Visconti is an absolutely unbelievable player. He’s a special kid and [Ryan] Bakie did a great job on him, that’s what it was.”
Cranford would take over as the fourth quarter rolled along. Trailing 40-38, junior Matt Fonseca drained a go-ahead three-point basket with under seven minutes left and the Cougars weren’t done just yet. Their scoring run continued to 8-0 to take a 46-40 lead with 5:10 left in the game before Johnson tried to call a timeout to try and settle everything out.
The Crusaders would sneak their way back in, with Stanzione scoring one of two free throws and junior George Visconti draining two free throws of his own to make it 46-43 with 3:34 left. Following two missed free throws by Cranford, sophomore Brenden Kelly made it a 46-45 game from the foul line with 4:06 left.
Cranford would fight back to boost their lead to five points, 50-45, with 1:35 left to go. Hund would drain two free throws to make it a 50-47 game. Following a Cranford basket, Kelly would score to make it 52-49 with less than a minute left. However, Cranford senior Kyle Ledford went right through the defense to make it 54-49.
Visconti got his team back in it with a three-point basket with 23 seconds left, but Cranford held their ground and came through with the win on the road to advance in the Union County Tournament.
“It’s just a one-game-at-a-time thing,” Huver added. “On Monday, we’ll get back at it [and prepare], the coaches will start working tonight, getting the game-plan together for Union and we’ll take that game and whatever happens after that, we’re going to go out and do what we do.”
For Johnson, sophomore Brandon Hund scored 16 points for the Crusaders in the loss, while junior George Visconti scored 12 points in the loss.
Junior Joe DiProfio added nine points for the Crusaders, who have to look forward despite falling short, learning a few things from the loss that ended their eight-game winning streak.
“[We have to learn] the process of learning how to win and what type of effort you bring everyday,” Johnson head coach Dave Kennedy said. “Give Cranford a lot of credit. They played a very good game today. They’re much improved and that’s a credit to Coach Huver.”
“You got to be ready to play and you’ve got to play an entire game and they did a better job at that than we did,” he added.
The Johnson Crusaders (17-2) will try and rebound from their second setback of the year with a Saturday morning game against Verona HS Saturday morning at 11:30 a.m.
The Cranford Cougars (7-12) advance to the Union County Tournament Second Round and will play at No. 8 seeded Union HS Wednesday night at 7:00 p.m.
Their next game is Tuesday, February 14 on the road at Governor Livingston High School at 7:00 p.m.