PISCATAWAY, NJ – You know the Pat Benatar song, “Hit me with your best shot”?
While the Piscataway High School varsity boys’ basketball team isn’t exactly inviting their opponent’s best shot, they certainly get it.
On Saturday afternoon, the Chiefs improved to 9-1 overall and 6-0 in the Red Division of the Greater Middlesex Conference with a tough, 56-49 victory over J.P. Stevens at just about the midpoint of the 2017-18 season. The win didn’t come easy as Piscataway had to withstand a bevy of 3-pointers from the Hawks (5-5, 2-4), including five from Elisha Smith who finished with a game-high 21 points.
Piscataway’s Mattias Arrindell and Antonio Chandler led the charge for the Chiefs as both scored 15 points apiece. Keshawn Grant added 14 while Jordan Davidson had eight.
“They’re a well-coached team,” Piscataway head coach Darius Griffin Sr. said. “They always give us a hard time. Their style of play is different than others. We knew that Smith and Tyrese Conover were the ones that make their engine go. We did not do a very good job especially in the beginning at guarding them and that’s something that we’re going to have to work on. They’re a good team and I’m happy to get another win in the tough GMC.”
J.P. Stevens -- most notably Smith -- started hot from deep which gave them confidence throughout the contest. The Hawks led after each quarter until the fourth when the Chiefs outscored them in the frame, 19-10. Piscataway drove the ball to the hoop to draw contact and fouls and got the ball inside to Grant. Piscataway converted 18 free-throws in the game compared to only five for J.P. Stevens. Most of them came in the fourth quarter off the hands of Chandler and Grant.
Getting out in transition all game helped, too, which is Piscataway’s strength. Davidson hit key 3-pointers at times as well.
With the game tied at 46-46 with 3:53 left, Piscataway went on a mini 4-0 run with two free throws apiece from Chandler and Davidson to go up 50-46. After a timeout, the Chiefs played keep-away. J.P. Stevens got it to 50-47 on a foul shot, but that was as close as they got the rest of the way. Grant made four free throws and Chandler made two to ice it.
No matter the level of play, making foul shots is critical. Piscataway was clutch when it mattered most down the stretch.
“We had our problems earlier in the year where we weren’t shooting the free-throw as well. We work on it at practice just like every other team, but as you know, foul shots are key,” Griffin said. “If you want to be a great team, you have to do all the little things.”
Playing once again without injured starting point guard Tyree Barba-Bey, who Griffin said he hopes to have back soon, Nasir Gray earned plenty minutes off the bench. While he only had one point, Gray’s face-guarding defense went unnoticed.
“He’s a senior and he’s strong and long,” Griffin said of Gray. “We depend on him come in and give us the extra that we need. We’re down one starter and Nasir Grey did a super, super job for us. It’s been an adjustment when you bring in another player and have to make up for that (Barba-Bey’s absence).”
J.P. Stevens started the game on an 11-5 run, but two steals and layups by Arrindell pulled the Chiefs to within two at 11-9. However, J.P. Stevens led 20-16 at the end of the first quarter.
In a much sloppier second quarter, Piscataway was hit with multiple offensive fouls, but they managed to play stout defense. The Hawks scored just four in the frame while Piscataway mustered across seven to cut the deficit to one. Piscataway took its first lead in the game on two free throws from Chandler with 2:00 left before the break.
At the start of the third quarter, the Chiefs went on a 6-0 run to hold a 29-24 advantage which was highlighted by a shot from behind the arc by Davidson and a layup by Arrindell. The Hawks stormed back and outscored Piscataway 15-8 the rest of the way to take a 39-37 lead heading into the fourth.
That set up the Piscataway comeback themselves in the final quarter. Nothing fazed the experienced crew.
Sitting pretty at 9-1 with just over half of the regular season schedule to go, the Chiefs are in good shape. But Griffin said his team has to snap out of a funk and get rolling again. Midway through the season, Piscataway has hit the good old fashioned proverbial wall.
“We still have to play better,” said Griffin. “Right now, we’ve kind of hit a wall just like every team does in the middle of the season. We have to re-focus because every team is giving us their best shot. You know, I watch teams on film and it’s not the same team when we play them. We just have to be able to take it one game at a time.”
Piscataway finished 16-10 last year in Griffin’s first season with the team. Before they hadn’t had a winning record since 2011-12 when they went 14-13. Griffin has helped bring the program back to respectability and then some.
But he nor his players are looking past anybody or anything. It’s on to Trenton.
“I just want to be 1-0 after every game,” Griffin said. “I don’t want to look past anything. We play Trenton on Monday (in the Martin Luther King Jr. Classic at New Brunswick High School) and I’m just zoned in on that. Let everything else take care of itself. You can’t overthink these things.
“It’s a struggle, but we’re going to keep on fighting.”