SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD, NJ -- The Raiders against Blue Devils was a match-up hyped up for the past week once tickets were put on a pre-sale. In the end, the boys basketball contest lived up to the billing and more. Just ask the Scotch Plains-Fanwood fans who rushed the court after SPFHS defeated Westfield, 56-47, at home Thursday night to extend their record to 14-1.
“Raider Nation and the Scotch Plains-Fanwood community was amazing right from the opening warm-up,” SPFHS head coach Steve Siracusa said. “They were just going and they were so loud. It made a great home atmosphere and it was amazing to see and we thank them so much for that. It made a difference.”
Although the Raiders came away as the victors and sent home the crowd delighted, the first quarter was handled by Westfield. For the Blue Devils, senior Matt LaCorte was his versatile self. LaCorte showed why he was Westfield’s all-time leader in three-pointers early in the game when he hit nothing but net from beyond the arc. Not only did LaCorte finish the first quarter with five of his 11 points, but he facilitated the offense, pulled down rebounds and stalled multiple Raider possessions.
Even if LaCorte gave Westfield the lead at 16-11 at the end of the first quarter, Raider senior Nigel Nelson set the tone for how SPFHS would be playing for the rest of the game. Nelson hustled his way to score the first six points for the Raiders to get the crowd and team into the game. He displayed that the home team was not going to slow down at any point of the game.
“(I was able to set the tone in the first quarter) because of the crowd, because of Raider Nation,” Nelson said. “They really came out and I wanted to put on a show. My last time out playing Westfield too so I just had to go.”
Nelson continued to showcase his aggressive play the next quarter with his ability to sky over Westfield defenders for offensive rebounds and second-chance opportunities to score. Nelson totaled 12 of his 16 points to give the Raiders a 27-23 lead at the end of the first half.
“It was a great effort on Nigel’s part,” said Siracusa. “He was just attacking and looking to play how he was capable of. He’s a heck of a player. He stepped up in a big game and I think he wanted this and he showed that tonight and I’m very happy for him.”
At the beginning of the third quarter, SPFHS was still going full throttle against their neighboring rivals. In the first 2:18 minutes of the period, the Raiders went on a 7-0 run to push their lead to double digits early on in the second half. Although the offense started to slow down in the quarter the defense did not. The SPFHS tenacious man-to-man defense allowed only 10 points during the third quarter. Defense has been what Siracusa stresses most to his team.
“We made sure we got out on every shot,” Siracusa said. “I criticized our team for defense on Tuesday night and they really bounced back and responded tonight. That’s a sign of a good team. We battled through adversity. We had a hiccup the other day but we proved we still a pretty good defensive team and they just took it personal on the defensive end. It made a huge difference for tonight.”
The Raiders took an eight-point lead and the momentum into the fourth and were not looking to allow the Blue Devils to inch back into the contest. As the quarter went on, Westfield got to as close as three points. But with LaCorte, their biggest offensive threat, unable to hit a jump shot since the first quarter, the Blue Devils couldn’t go stride for stride with the Raider offense and ended up on the losing side of the game.
The way the Raiders handled themselves throughout the game showed Siracusa that this team is different than the one he took over last season.
“(The difference from last year’s team) is night and day,” Siracusa said. “I think we worked extremely hard all offseason and games like Westfield kind of bothered us and I think that pushed us that much more to improve and come to together as a team. And I think this year we really gelled and were continuing to play together as a team and just step up and play great defense. And I think the players bought into what we're trying to teach and trying to do and I’m proud of them and we have to keep it going now.”
The Raiders will next play Summit at home Saturday afternoon while Westfield will next travel for a rematch against Union Catholic on Saturday.