After a five year absence from the Union County Finals, the Elizabeth Minutemen made it back this year. The Minutemen beat #4 state-ranked Plainfield convincingly 88-78 during last Wednesday’s night semi-final match-up at the Elizabeth Dunn Center.
St. Pat’s defeated Linden 49-36 in a hard-fought defensive struggle last Thursday night. The two teams met in the final the two previous years and split the series. Linden coach Phil Colicchio did a masterful job in turning the season around after losing 6-foot 9 center David Bruce to an academic issue.
The two schools met in an all-Elizabeth final in the 73rd Frank Cicarell Union County Tournament on Saturday.
“We worked so hard and all nine seniors really dedicated themselves this year,” said Elizabeth senior point guard Raymond Graham. He had 18 points in the win over Plainfield that propelled Elizabeth into the final.
The Minutemen breezed past Westfield 62-27 in the opening round of the tournament, and ended a Cinderella run for Hillside by serving them a 73-43 loss before squaring off against Plainfield.
“We had two solid days of practice and changed the way we played with them,” said second year Elizabeth coach Chris Balent. “We pressed them last time and they burned us.”
“It’s a big accomplishment for our team,” said Elizabeth senior forward James Frazier. “In front of a big crowd, I felt like a champion today.” Frazier led all scorers with 24 hard nose points in the paint.
In last year’s post-season competition, Balent’s Minutemen ended their run with two consecutive losses to Linden in the county tournament and the state sectionals. At this year’s post-game celebration after Elizabeth’s semi-final victory over Plainfield, Balent received a big hug and congratulations from Colicchio. The two rival Watchung coaches are close friends.
Elizabeth was technically the visiting team on their home court because of tournament seeding. The Minutemen controlled most of the game, but the fouls made the situation tricky. “I was looking at the fouls on the clock until I caught myself,” Balent said.
“We opened up in the Neptune Christmas tournament and I thought we were playing real well to start the season,” Balent said. Elizabeth lost their first two Watchung regular season games to Scotch Plains and Union. The crafty young coach guided the senior-dominated team to eight wins in the next nine games.
Balent came to the Union County school with an impressive 49-9 record at South Brunswick High School and a state ranking. “I was drawn to the tradition of the job,” Balent said. The coach’s first year at the helm at Elizabeth presented some challenges. “The first year is always going to be tough,” he said. “I tried some things offensively that worked at South Brunswick that didn’t work here.”
The last two times the Elizabeth schools met in the finals (in 1995 and 2004), the Minutemen had the Celtics’ number. This year, things turned out differently. Junior Kyrie Irving led the Celtics to an 89-72 victory on Saturday.
The Minutemen are back to work already with the state tournament starting on Monday. Elizabeth is the third seed and opens up with a tough Watching Hills team. Plainfield is the fourth seed is squaring off against North Hunterdon. The two teams could have a third rubber match game in the North Jersey Section II Group IV.
Jim Whelan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org