Aliyyah Handford picked it up almost immediately.
The analytical Shabazz point guard had heard plenty about Teaneck’s vast collection of speed but when the 5-9 senior went to explore the opportunities for her to drive inside, she was surprised with what she discovered.
“Their feet were too slow,’’ Handford said of Teaneck’s defensive slides, the one thing you need if you plan on slowing the mercurial playmaker from her intended destination.
Handford immediately exploited the subtle flaw by repeatedly piercing the heart of Teaneck’s defense with one scintillating move after another.
Of the 11 field goals Handford netted, eight came off blinding bursts that launched her into the lane and toward the rim as she clicked for 23 points to pace Shabazz, No. 2 in The MSG Varsity New Jersey Top 15 power rankings, to a 67-52 victory over No. 5 Teaneck on Saturday night at the New Year’s Resolution in Paterson.
“We came into this game telling the kids that Teaneck is fast, they are going to run and they are going to press,” Shabazz coach Vanessa Watson said. “At halftime, Aliyyah says ‘we can go by them’ and I asked the rest of them if she was the only one that could go to the basket.”
Handford made it clear the path she was going to choose by finishing four drives to the hoop in the first quarter, the last ahead of the field on a steal she made to give Shabazz (7-1) a 17-12 lead. She slipped inside twice more in the second quarter with the latter extending the Bulldogs’ advantage to 31-22 with 4:49 showing in the second quarter. And, by the time she glided to the basket off the elbow to trigger an acrobatic three-point play with 3:03 to go in the third, the margin had grown to 49-34.
While Handford’s feet were sparking the offense, teammate Naqaiyyah Teague’s were shuffling through picks and screens in order to contain Jakelle King-Gilchrist. The 5-9 senior guard came in averaging nearly 20 points per game for Teaneck (5-1), yet felt Teague’s defensive wrath from the outset.
“I get excited about stuff like that because I feel it’s a challenge,” Teague said of drawing King-Gilchrist, who is heading to Florida State, as her defensive assignment within Shabazz’s man-to-man. “It makes me push even harder. I’m a defensive player, I don’t care about scoring.”
Teague limited King-Gilchrist to a buzzer-beating 3-pointer that ended the first quarter in a 17-17 deadlock and three more jumpers from behind the arc in the second half en route to 12 points.
“She does the things that go unnoticed and will defend anyone,” Watson said of Teague. “She makes plays and does things you can’t coach. I try to keep her on the floor because there is a toughness about her I wish a lot of the other players had.”
Shabazz also got a strong inside performance from sophomore De’Ashia Jones, who collected 12 points, eight rebounds and two steals as well as an exterior presence by senior guard Ricshar Benjamin, who hit a pair of 3-pointers and finished with 10 points.
Benjamin nailed a trey to stamp a 17-7 outburst in the first 4:48 of the second quarter that pushed Shabazz to a 34-24 cushion.
A three-point play by sophomore Zaire O’Neill, set up by an assist from Handford, staked Shabazz to its largest margin, 55-34, with a minute remaining in the third quarter.
Kayla Gibbs, a 6-0 center, came off the bench to top Teaneck with 15 points.
Gregg Lerner covers girls basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @gregglerner