Newark University's shift from its customary zone to a man-to-man defense was one rooted in respect for Cresskill, but was also definitely conceived with an underlying air of contempt.
"They have good shooters, so we weren't going to play zone against them," senior point guard Elijah Brown said. "We had to get up in them, make them a little scared."
If the defense itself didn't make Cresskill tremble, the uptempo game University conducted off turnovers and rebounds certainly had to cause discomfort.
Senior guard Keith Foster scored 20 points and also grabbed 10 rebounds and Brown and junior guard Akrum Wadley combined for 28 points, seven assists and eight steals to lead Newark University to a 64-53 win in the NJSIAA/ShopRite Group 1 semifinals Wednesday night at East Orange Campus.
University (19-11) came up with 13 steals, including three of Wadley's five in the first half to guide the Phoenix to a 33-25 lead. His team compiled three more steals in the first 5:30 of the third quarter to forge a 45-33 advantage.
"We played hard. Our defense was our offense," Foster said. "We got steals and turned them into points. Those early ones were big. It gave us momentum."
University hopes to ride that momentum into its clash with defending champion Asbury Park in the Group 1 final Sunday at the Rutgers Athletic Center. University won the Group 1 crown in 2009 and '10, but fell to Dayton in the North Jersey, Section 2, Group 1 final last year.
University's challenge would have been steep enough with a full roster against talented Cresskill (22-4), led by junior forwards Dom Wilson (20 points) and Alex DeCandia (10 points, eight rebounds) and senior forward Rich VanCleft (nine points, eight rebounds).
But the Newark school suffered a blow when Morgan Dixon was injured two nights earlier in a 71-64 overtime victory against Dayton for the North Jersey, Section 2 title. The 6-1 senior guard is one of the team's best rebounders and defenders.
"Morgan is good on the boards," Foster said. "I had to step up and rebound and take his place."
The additional duty did nothing to obstruct Foster in his normal role, which is to shoot. He scored six points in the first quarter to send the Phoenix to a 15-11 lead and netted five more in the second as the lead grew to eight.
"The guards distributed the ball well," Foster said of Brown and Wadley. "They made it easier for me. They set a good tempo and used everyone."
University forced 11 turnovers in the first half with its stern man-to-man and committed only three over the span. The Phoenix shot an unspectacular 37 percent from the floor in the half, though limited Cresskill to only 21 attempts in those first 16 minutes.
"As long as we played hard and stayed with them, we'd be good," Foster said. "Coming into the game we knew they were a good shooting tem, so we couldn't play zone. Coach (Elijah Allen) said to man up and switch off screens. That worked better for us."
Cresskill created better shot opportunities in the second half off dribble penetration and kicks and cut its deficit to 47-43 with a 10-2 run late in the third quarter. DeCandia sparked the move with a putback and VanCleft capped it with a basket inside off a feed by Wilson.
But Wadley sank a pull-up jumper with 15 seconds to go in the period for a six-point lead and Kendall Henry opened the fourth with a free throw. Ryan Feulner hit a 3-pointer to close Cresskill's gap to a 56-51 with just over three minutes to play, but University created further separation by sinking eight free throws on eight attempts in the final 1:58.
Mike Kinney covers boys basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKinneyHS