It surely was no surprise that Elizabeth flexed its defensive muscles a bit more resolutely this time than was so in the first game against Linden.
Because this time the Minutemen had more muscle on hand with which to flex.
Elizabeth was without four experienced regulars--three of them football players fresh off a sectional championship--when it opened the season Dec. 14 on the road against Linden. The undermanned Minutemen battled fiercely enough to force overtime, though withered down the stretch and lost by 12 points.
This time around, the Elizabeth roster was almost at full strength and it looked that way. Isaiah Davis scored 18 points and also recorded four of his team's seven blocks and fellow senior Hakeem Rogers scored 16 points and had two of the club's 12 steals to guide Elizabeth to a 57-45 win Wednesday in a Union County Conference-Watchung Division game at the Elizabeth Dunn Center.
Elizabeth (15-4), No. 7 in The MSG Varsity NJ Power Rankings, won its fifth consecutive game and for the 11th time in the last 12. Linden (15-6), ranked No. 12, lost for the third time in four games, though one was a one-point loss to No. 6 Roselle Catholic and the other a three-point loss to No. 9 Patrick School.
"It was nice having the whole crew," Rogers said. He scored 24 points and had nine rebounds in the first encounter with Linden, but Elizabeth's depleted defense could not halt Linden's quick pace and fell, 75-63.
"We just wanted to pressure their guards and try to slow them down," he said. "They didn't really know what they were doing against our pressure, and we just made our shots on the other end."
Elizabeth shot a tidy 22 of 45 from the floor as a result of both runouts produced through pressure and hard work on the offensive boards against its bigger, younger opponent.
Elizabeth started five seniors, none of whom is over 6-3. Linden started two players over 6-4, including 6-9 junior Quadri Moore, but not one starter was a senior. Still, Linden ended the half trailing only 27-25.
"First half, we wanted to be leading by a little bit more, so our objective was to just come out and play harder defense," Davis said. "Just get stops like we know we can and make good shots."
Davis both made and terminated good shots and by sinking a season-high four 3-pointers and coming up with his four blocks. Teammate Damon Miraud rejected three shots and also had 10 rebounds and seven assists to go along with his eight points.
"We're aggressive," Rogers said. "We know they're bigger, so we're gonna have to style, get rebounds and all that. We're all guards, but we're real aggressive guards."
Moore, who finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds, tied the game at 27-27 by opening the third quarter with a basket inside off a feed by Juwan Dolbrice. But Taahir Pretlow sank a 3-pointer 39 seconds later to trigger an 8-0 run that gave Elizabeth a 35-25 lead with 4:55 to go.
Moore scored on a putback with 4:36 remaining in the third and dunked off a feed from Terrell Bagley just over a minute later to pull the Tigers to within 35-31. Elizabeth closed out the quarter with a 9-2 run led by Davis with two 3-pointers and layup off a steal.
"When they give me the ball and I'm open, most likely it's going in," Davis said. "We played our offense good; we executed, and we also played better defense. We made steals and converted on them all day."
Pretlow, a reserve guard, led the way with three steals while Davis, Miraud, Rogers and Jahad Thomas each had three. Wednesday starters Thomas, Davis and Kason Campbell all missed the December clash with Linden.
Football standout P.J. Walker, a Temple grid recruit along with Thomas, missed the first Linden battle and also sat out Wednesday with an ankle sprain. He's a defensive workhorse and an energetic offensive spark off the bench.
"We would love to have P.J. back, but we're not going to push it," Elizabeth head coach Chris Balent said. "We don't want to set him back at all for next football season."
Elizabeth also played the final six minutes of the second quarter without Rogers, but that was because of foul trouble, not injury. The Minutemen led, 20-15, when the versatile senior departed, and Linden promptly seized the lead with a 10-2 spurt led by Juwan Jones and James Julius with two 3--pointers apiece. Elizabeth moved in front again, 27-25, just before the half on a fast break layup by Thomas and a three-point play by Kamil Brown.
That lead could have belonged to Linden if not for Elizabeth's excellent timing on shots in the paint and even jumpers. four of the seven blocks came in the first half, two by Davis.
"We spend a lot of time working on closeouts," Balent said. "We did some closeout and rebounding drills the last two days. Went a lot of fullcourt probably more than we normally do in practice.
"We're not big," he said. "We just have to play harder than every team, If we play harder than every team, we're skilled enough where I think we have a chance."
Linden is a team that always seems to have a chance because of its outstanding defense. The Tigers minimized opportunity dramatically, though, by allowing Elizabeth's defense to be more outstanding.
"We knew the pressure was coming," Linden head coach Phil Colicchio said. "We worked on it and knew they would be coming with different kinds of traps. We did a terrible job of meeting passes, lessening the passes. We were making passes longer and they were stealing them, we were dribbling round and they bum-rushed us."
Bagley scored 12 points and also had seven rebounds and three assists for Linden. All 12 points came in the first half.
Mike Kinney covers boys basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKinneyHS