WESTFIELD, NJ – Union County is arguably the best county for boys basketball in the state of New Jersey.
Between perennial private powers The Patrick School and Roselle Catholic and public contenders Elizabeth and Linden, there is a ton of talent across the county.
The Westfield High School boys basketball team is ready to be in that mix of top teams.
The fifth-seeded Blue Devils cruised past rival and 12th-seeded Scotch Plains-Fanwood and picked up a 56-34 victory in the first round of the Union County Tournament at home on Wednesday.
Westfield built a double-digit lead early and never looked back.
“This is the third matchup (this season), and you never really want to run into a team three times,” said Westfield head coach Jim McKeon, whose Blue Devils won the previous two meetings over the Raiders. “Our main focus the last couple of days was to be the aggressor on the glass, own the paint. Every single one of our guys stepped up. It’s not just the big guys — our guards got rebounds today. We were physical altogether.”
Westfield (17-5) set the tone early, crashing the glass and creating second-chance opportunities. SP-F was unable to match that ferociousness on the glass.
Westfield senior Griffin Rooney dominated all day, putting in a game-high 29 points to go with five rebounds, two steals and a block.
Rooney said winning those 50-50 balls on Wednesday was crucial.
“We’re a bigger team in general,” the senior said. “We work so hard in practice, and we have a lot of guys with a lot of grit. We wanted to win those 50-50 balls, and we did that especially in the first quarter.”
The Blue Devils led 17-2 in the first quarter after Rooney knocked down a 3-pointer. Westfield led 20-10 after one quarter of play.
The Raiders were within striking distance in spurts. They cut Westfield’s lead to 11 at 45-34 early in the fourth quarter, which led to McKeon talking it over with his group.
Out of the timeout, the Blue Devils had four straight points, forcing SP-F into turnovers, and they cruised from that point on.
“Basketball is a game of runs. We just had to limit theirs,” McKeon said. “You see them make a couple of baskets. I just wanted to settle our guys down. I think we were playing safe. We have to dictate the tempo and execution.”
Rooney had 10 of his 29 points come from the foul line.
Sophomore Ryan Friedberg made the most of his starting role, putting in 12 points.
“You wouldn’t even know he’s a sophomore,” McKeon said. “He played with a poise and was under control. He is super athletic.”
Junior Jack Spellman grabbed 10 rebounds and had an eye-opening seven blocks on the day. Senior Andrew Echausse had five assists and three steals.
Senior Jake Walsh, one of Westfield’s top players, was out with a sprained ankle. He is optimistic to return this season.
“We’re day-to-day with him,” McKeon said. “He’s a hard worker. It’s unfortunate for him because he’s such a key part to this team. He has a mindset that he wants to get back.”
If players step up and Rooney plays like he did Wednesday night, perhaps Walsh’s absence won’t be felt that much.
The Blue Devils will now play against fourth-seeded Linden in the Union County Tournament quarterfinals Saturday at Rahway High School. The tip is scheduled for noon.
Linden defeated Westfield by six on Feb. 11.
“They’re a good team,” Rooney said. “We didn’t play as well as we wanted to. We want revenge. I don’t think we’re going to come out slow. It’s going to be hard to play with us when we have revenge on our minds.”
“When we left Linden, we were sour,” McKeon added, referring to that first meeting. “We were there with them. They were the better team that night. All I ask is for these guys to play hard, and they do that every night. We don’t shy away from anybody. It’s a good experience for these kids. You want to be challenged. We’re trying to set the tone for a long time.”