LINDEN, NJ- The Linden High School Tigers boys varsity basketball team took to the floor for one last game in front of their home fans in the state tournament against the Phillipsburg High School Stateliners.
What was once a close game, turned into a blowout in the second half, as the third-seeded Tigers (ranked No. 8 on NJ.com’s Top 20) defeated the seventh-seeded Stateliners 79-48 in the NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 2, Group 4 Semifinals Saturday night in Linden.
The Linden Tigers (22-6) advance to the NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 2, Group 4 Sectional Final. They will travel to take on top-seeded Newark East Side HS (ranked No. 7 on NJ.com’s Top 20) Monday afternoon at 4:00 p.m.
“This is the game everybody expected in the sectional final, it’s no secret,” Linden head coach Phil Colicchio said. “With that being said, it’s basketball, it’s a 32-minute game. Whether it be here in Linden or Newark East Side, wherever it may be, we’re going to win the game.”
The two teams faced off in the NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 2, Group 4 Sectional Final the past two seasons, with Linden winning both meetings at home (2016: 62-59 in OT and 2017: 59-51).
For Linden, their schedule consisted of tough opponents, including The Patrick School, Bergen Catholic, Timber Creek, Roselle Catholic, teams in South Carolina, Trenton Catholic and St. Mary of the Assumption, giving them the confidence of the competition that lays ahead.
“We’ve been on the road a lot of times and played tough teams and getting wins, so it’s nothing new,” Linden senior Mikey Watkins said.
After the opening tipoff, the Stateliners gave the Tigers a close battle. They continued to answer every Linden basket, receiving production from senior Chris Mann, who scored seven points in the quarter.
Linden and Phillipsburg were tied at 12-12 after the first quarter, with baskets coming from different players from the Tigers, including senior Jaylin Cooper-Reid, senior Louis Rodriguez and Jones.
As the second quarter started, all it took was a major offensive streak to get Linden going and it came in constant possessions.
After Phillipsburg cut the Linden lead to 16-15, the Tigers got three straight three-pointers, with sophomore Myles Ruth delivering two and Watkins delivering one, forcing a Stateliners timeout and the Tigers fans on their feet, the score 25-15 Linden with 4:37 left in the quarter.
“We trusted our coaching staff and [Phillipsburg] underestimated us and we just stepped up and made big plays,” Linden senior Jaylin Cooper-Reid said.
Linden led Phillipsburg 33-23 at halftime and continued pressing as the second half got started. The Tigers went on an 8-0 scoring run to build their lead to 41-25 with 4:34 left in the third quarter.
They held the Stateliners to zero shots for a duration of five-and-a-half minutes and built a 50-34 lead going into the fourth quarter.
“It’s very hard to press us. We have four guards most of the time playing on the court,” Colicchio said. “Tavon Jones handles the ball, Mikey Watkins handles the ball, Myles Ruth handles the ball [and] Louis Rodriguez handles the ball. So, if they press us, we’re going to make plays.”
Sophomore Amir Williams drained a shot and Jones drained a three-pointer to build a 55-34 Linden lead. Williams and Watkins led the offensive surge in the fourth quarter, as Linden build its largest lead to 66-40 with 3:54 left.
Watkins added 11 points in the quarter as the Linden crowd cheered on the players as the final buzzer sounded as the Tigers advanced to the sectional final.
Jones finished the night with 14 points, reflecting on his final game on Coach Colicchio Court.
“I just want to thank God for providing all the blessings that he did in my life,” Jones said. “It was a great run [playing games at Coach Colicchio Court], but at the end of the day, we knew this was coming to an end.”
With foul trouble on key players, the Tigers players from the bench took over and cashed in for the Tigers.
Linden had five players hit double figures. Williams was the leading scorer, powering Linden with 18 points off the bench, while Watkins added 17 points.
Cooper-Reid finished the night with 13 points in the win, while senior Louis Rodriguez added 11 points.
“We’ve had a lot of tough teams throughout the year,” Cooper-Reid said. “We traveled and played some tough teams. We just have a lot of confidence and our coaching staff is going to lead us the right way and [go for] and come out with the win.”
“It’s not over,” Jones said of the road ahead. “We’ve got to go to East Side [High School] in Newark. It’s going to be a tough game, but we’re going to follow our game plan as always and hopefully the outcome is the same as always.”