CRANFORD - Liam Kwiatkowski picked the right day to have a career game.
Kwiatkowski knocked-down four three-pointers and went 8-for-8 from the free throw line to lead 14th-seeded Cranford past 19th-seeded Johnson, 62-46, in the first round of the Union County Tournament on Wednesday night.
The final score didn't indicate it, but the packed crowd got to witness a tale of three games in one - a battle of two gritty defenses to start, a high-offense tic for tac middle, and a focused Cranford and deflated Johnson finish. Both teams entered Monday as underdog preliminary round winners looking to keep the magic going.
Kwiatkowski, just a sophomore, began the season as a rotational player barely appearing in the stat book. Now in the starting lineup, he finished Monday with a game-high 20 points, a team-high seven rebounds, and was perfect from the free throw line. Though he managed just five points in the low-scoring first-half, Kwiatkowski was the catalyst for Cranford as both offenses came alive in the third and fourth quarters. He knocked-down three 3's in the third quarter, including a deep one at the buzzer to send the Cougars into the fourth with an eight-point lead.
"We just had great chemistry tonight," said Kwiatkowski. "People were getting me looks and being unselfish. Everybody was trying to help the team out, and we came in here today to try and win."
What looked like it would be an uptempo game from the start as Johnson scored off the opening tip and Kwiatkowski responded on Cranford's first possession with his first three-pointer, the game slowed dramatically as both defenses went into lockdown mode, and both offenses struggled to drain any opportune shots. Going into the half, the score was a paltry 16-14 Cranford lead.
"This was a new atmosphere for us. Loud crowd, big game. They're not use to this atmosphere, and at halftime, I was just preaching patience," said Cranford head coach Sean Trotter. "We were playing a little out of control. The fans were loud and we were rushing shots."
Whatever else Coach Trotter told his team, they responded to it as Kwiatkowski's nine points and Dennis DeMarino's additional five helped Cranford to more than double it's first-half point total as they put together a 19-point third quarter and took a 35-27 lead into the fourth.
Things remained close midway through the final eight minutes, but a third Cougar, Arjun Petgrave, who had just two points through the first three quarters, got hot and was able to put together a seven-point fourth. Along with Petgrave, DeMarino carried his momentum from the third quarter and parlayed it into nine additional points in the fourth. As Cranford's lead increased and time winded down, Johnson had no other choice but to foul to stop the clock. Unfortunately for them, they consistently fouled Kwiatkowski, who would go 6-for-6 from the line in the final three minutes.
Cranford's five starters - Kwiatkowski, DeMarino, Petgrave, Zion Hammond, and Joe Carrea - combined for all 62 Cougars' points. Hammond, who consistently scored through all four quarters, finished with 14 points, and Carrea had seven.
The win gives Cranford (12-10) its seventh in its last eight games. The Cougars now advance to the quarterfinal round against third-seeded Elizabeth (18-3), tentatively set for Saturday at 1 p.m.