The NJSIAA state tournament heads into the home stretch starting today with sectional titles on the line in Group 4 and Group 2. Here is a quick breakdown of what to expect from some of the matchups.
NORTH JERSEY, SECTION 1
5-Paterson Kennedy (23-6) at 3-Passaic Tech (22-4), 4
These two teams are no strangers. Paterson Kennedy, the defending sectional champion, kicked off its season with a 47-32 victory at Passaic Tech’s expense but the Bulldogs returned the favor on Jan. 23 with a 58-41 triumph.
Both teams are hitting their stride at the perfect time; Passaic Tech, which won the Passaic County Tournament title, has won 11 straight while Paterson Kennedy brings a seven-game winning streak into this rubber match.
Paterson Kennedy, which has dealt all season without its full cast together at one time, continues to re-invent itself. Without injured senior forward Kylla Champagne, the Knights have gone small with a guard-oriented scheme that utilizes the individual assets of Morgan Taylor, Ahnyyah Jackson, Koryn Lawrence-Barrett and Erika Brown, who returned to the lineup after missing the first 24 games recovering from a torn ACL.
Passaic Tech loves to run the floor behind guards Nikia Richardson and Kianna Briggs, who swarm ballhandlers in search of creating turnovers to get out on the break. But, when it settles into the halfcourt, anticipate the ball finding its way inside to 6-0 senor Sierra McDuffie, who combines a soft touch around the basket with her imposing length on the boards and quick recovery to reject shots.
5-River Dell (21-8) at 3-Pequannock (19-9), 7
This one should really have some tremendous play in frontcourt.
River Dell boasts 6-1 senior Kate Brock (19.2 ppg.), who can score from basically anywhere. She has hit 16 3-pointers but her forte is on the blocks where she goes up strong and draws fouls to get to the line.
Pequannock will counter with 6-2 senior Samantha Tabakman (19.7 ppg.). The Rhode Island recruit has scored no less than 12 points in any game this season and her consistency is a primary reason Pequannock works the ball inside.
But, both sides should be warned: concentrate solely on defending the post and there are others who deliver consequences. Dana Torchia provides ample perimeter support for Tabakman and Nicole Hausleben has a knack for finding space to shoot.
For River Dell, Kayla McGovern plays well off Brock on the opposite block and Jordan Bastable can stick the outside jumper.
NORTH JERSEY, SECTION 2
4-North Hunterdon (25-5) at 3-Piscataway (22-6), 6
If blockbuster potential is what you seek, look no further.
This showdown offers one of the state’s premier players in Danaejah Grant. Trying to find a shortcoming the 5-9 guard’s game is useless because there aren't any.
Piscataway’s senior guard is something to behold. Power and confidence ooze from her fingertips when she releases her textbook jumpers but she is also quick and strong to the rim. She powers inside to compete on the boards and is always eager to get teammates in involved. Grant recently surpassed 2,500 points for her career and is the program’s all-time leading scorer. She will be playing at Clemson next season.
Oh, by the way, that competing on the boards thing, yeah, that’s going to be vital for the Chiefs, who must contend with North Hunterdon’s wealth of size. Between 6-0 Alisa Tarsi, 6-2 Imani Martinez and 6-1 Allison Lane, the Lions have no shortage of post players who can get involved in rebounding.
Tarsi and Martinez are two seniors with loads of experience. The two were integral parts in North Hunterdon’s charge to the Group 4 state title in 2010 and know the demands of this time of the season. Martinez is quick to attack the basket off the wings while Tarsi has displayed growing confidence in her perimeter shooting to go with her established abilities in the blocks. Lane comes off the bench to spell either when need.
Senior Jess Pellechio is another tested veteran for North Hunterdon on the point. Her slick ball handling, change of speed, vision, dribble penetration and deft stroke from outside make her tough to contain.
Piscatway will count on Kiki Bynes to drive inside and occasionally explore her options along the arc and the same can be expected of Camisha Pierson.
2-Lincoln (26-3) at 1-Shabazz (27-1), 6
Lincoln has put together one heck of a season and should be playing loose against the No. 1 team in the MSG Varsity Tri-State Top 20.
Junior Breana Bey (23.1 ppg.) has been a force inside all season with well over 600 points and teams with Kiante Johnson (11.8 ppg.) to give the Jersey City school some serious firepower underneath. But, Lincoln does an exceptional job of balancing the floor with Timiah Calamito and Chaniyah Swan lingering along the arc in anticipation of shooting a team out of any zone designed to collapse around the post. The duo has combined for over 90 3-pointers.
Lincoln has yet to face a team of Shabazz’s caliber. The Bulldogs have been growling all season behind their snarling defense, which gets after the opposition in its active man-to-man and steps into passing lanes through its collection of speed.
Senior guard Aliyyah Handford may be the fast player on the ball in the entire state. She breezes through defenses with her quickness, slick handle and fearlessness. But, where she has grown as a playmaker is in her passing. Defenders who slide too quickly into the lane to contest a potential layup will be exposed by her creative passing that gets sophomore forwards De’Ashia Jones and Zaire O’Neil plenty of chances to score on the blocks.
The two forwards were made for each other; Jones, a rugged yet nimble righty and O’Neil a fast and efficient southpaw. And, both are equally aware of defenders converging upon them and will make guards who choose to double down pay with their underappreciated ability to pass out of the post and find Ricshar Benajim, a deadly streak shooter who rarely misses when unattended.
Shabazz also has the luxury of a lockdown defender in Naqaiyyah Teague. The 5-9 junior has great footwork and a passion for defense. She relishes the chance to matchup with an opponent’s best scorer.
2-Jackson (24-5) at Rancocas Valley (23-4), 7
The taxing schedule Jackson has endure should have the Jaguars primed to face the defending Group 4 champion. Senior point guard Tiffany Montagne is not only terrific at attacking the basket off the dribble, she is also a gritty defender. Junior Hannah Missry is among the state’s elite 3-point shooters, having hit 91 this season. She is lethal on the catch and shoot but is also slick at creating her own shot. She shrewdly uses her reputation as a shooter to set up defenders who flash out to be introduced to her confident drives.
Junior Stephanie Mason poses another perimeter threat (70 3-pointers) and is a part of a tough man-to-man defense that plays fast and is always looking to create turnovers.
All that said, this will be a daunting task for Jackson. Sophomore Lauren Moses, a 6-2 center, is strong and immovable when she anchors in the low post for Rancocas Valley and its stable of guards are all well-rounded. Natalya Lee, Brianna Logan and Jasmyne Lewis can all find paths to the basket off the dribble.
Gregg Lerner covers girls basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @gregglerner