NEWARK, NJ- The Linden High School Tigers boys varsity basketball team took to the floor looking for their sixth consecutive sectional championship against the team they beat on their home court the past two seasons.
After falling into an early deficit, the third-seeded Tigers (ranked No. 9 on NJ.com’s Top 20) struggled in the second quarter and never recovered, losing to the top-seeded Newark East Side High School Red Raiders (ranked No. 8 on NJ.com’s Top 20) 57-52 in the NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 2, Group 4 Sectional Final Monday afternoon in Newark.
From the opening tipoff, the Red Raiders used the energy of the crowd to take the early lead. Senior Shamir Johnson powered the Red Raiders with eight points in the quarter, along with two three-pointers. Linden fell behind 15-7 with 1:22 left in the opening quarter, before going on a run.
Senior Mikey Watkins drained the long three-pointer and was fouled on the play (missed free throw), cutting the lead down to 15-10. Following free throws from Johnson of the Red Raiders and Linden senior Louis Rodriguez, the Tigers trailed the Red Raiders 17-12 after the first quarter.
The second quarter would prove to be the ultimate unraveling of Linden’s struggles in the game. The Red Raiders held a 22-12 lead over the Tigers, but on the defensive end, kept Linden from getting any close shots and keeping their lead intact.
Linden senior Tavon Jones drained two three-pointers in the quarter, but the Red Raiders were able to respond to Tigers baskets, taking a 31-18 lead into halftime in front of the roar of the crowd.
Linden’s offensive struggles carried over to the third quarter, their deficit getting bigger as the second half began. The Tigers got no shots in the third quarter, getting all their points in those eight minutes at the free throw line.
Newark East Side powered through in the third quarter to strengthen their lead, senior DeAndre Speight scoring eight of the Red Raiders’ 12 points in the quarter to take a 43-24 lead after the third quarter, standing eight more minutes from a sectional championship.
The Red Raiders received eight points combined from senior Jahid Jenkins and Speight. However, Linden made a major push in the fourth quarter to get back in the game.
Led by Jones and Watkins, the Tigers went on a 9-0 scoring run, cutting the deficit to 45-33 with 6:23 left in the fourth quarter. Following a basket for Newark East Side, Linden stormed back again.
A 7-0 scoring run, with five of those points on free throws from Jones and sophomore Myles Ruth cut the lead down to 47-40 with 4:29 left. In total, Linden outscored Newark East Side 16-2 to cut the deficit down to seven points.
In the end, the Red Raiders got the points needed to put the game out of reach and capture the sectional title they fell short of when at Linden the past two seasons.
In the loss, senior Tavon Jones scored 22 points, finishing with 733 points on the season, finishing his high school basketball career with 1,766 points, putting him at second all-time in career-points total in Linden High School basketball history.
Senior Mikey Watkins finished with 13 points, while sophomore Myles Ruth tallied 12 points for his team.
The loss closes out the careers of a senior class on the team featuring Jones, Watkins, Louis Rodriguez, Jaylin Cooper-Reid, Shakim Bibby, Olgierd Kruczkowski and Markel McDuffie.
“There’s nothing like Linden basketball in my eyes,” Watkins said of his career. “The support from not only teammates and coaches, but the entire city. It was the greatest two years of my life and I am going to truly miss being part of Linden basketball. The coaches pushed me every day to be the best I can be. They saw more in me than I saw myself and I’m grateful for that.”
The Linden Tigers finish their 2017-18 season with a 22-7 record.