CRESSKILL -- While today’s basketball focuses more on the three-point shot, there’s still something to be said about defense winning championships, even if the game has evolved.
In what seemed like a throwback of sorts, where Monday night’s North 1 Group 1 sectional final game featured a physical play on Monday night, the top-seeded Cresskill Cougars displayed grit and toughness in beating the two-time defending sectional champion No. 3 Paterson Charter Lions (17-7), 48-44, giving them their first state championship since 2018 and their 14th sectional title.
“Credit them (his players) for finding a way to win and grinding it out,” the victorious Cresskill head coach Dan Egorow said of his 19-9 championship team. “We practiced well all week. They did all the work to get there. We executed defensively and offensively. I’m proud of the guys.”
The Cougars executed their zone defense to slow down the speedy Lions.
“We executed our game plan,” Cresskill junior Jack Hayward said after scoring 11 points off the bench. “In three of our tournament wins, we let our opponent score under 50 points.”
The Cougars limited Paterson Charter’s leading scorer Ka’Juan Gee to 11 points, De’Angelo Hibbert to 10 points and Giovanny Figueroa to nine points.
In the fourth quarter, the Lions struggled to get anything going offensively. They did not have many possessions on offense, and when they did, they missed. Cody Song (11 rebounds) and Omer Tai (eight rebounds) showed their presence in the paint by banging bodies and making sure the Lions' guards would not be in a position to make layups.
“Cody has an athletic body that can help get steals and Omar is so athletic in getting rebounds,” Cougars junior guard Marko Radovich noted about the contributions of Song and Tai.
The Cougars limited the Lions to 15 points in the fourth quarter, but the Lions struggled to score in the first eight minutes of the game.
Even when the Lions started the game with a 9-0 run, Cresskill tightened up on defense that would help them get back in the game, and that was good enough for them to hold their own, trailing 11-7 after the first quarter.
“We kept our composure,” said Radovich. “We did not fall into their trap of them pressing us. We just kept cool and played our game.”
Egorow inserted Hayward off the bench late in the second quarter to give the Cougars a spark offensively after the Lions took a 17- 13 lead.
The coach’s hunch paid off when Hayward hit two jumpers to tie the game at 17.
“Jack was ready to play,” Egorow said of the spark. “He always plays with confidence when he is out there.”
The Cougars used Hayward’s spark to propel them to a 20-19 lead at halftime.
“He had confidence in me,” Hayward said of his playing time, including playing most of the fourth quarter. “It felt good to go out there and contribute.”
The Cougars' defense took it to another gear in the third quarter by not allowing the Lions to score in the first five minutes.
But despite all that, the Lions took a 29-27 lead over the home team by the end of the third quarter.
It came at the right time that Radovich took over for the Cougars in the fourth quarter after struggling to make shots in the first half. He scored nine of his game-high 14 points in that quarter, including two 3-pointers and three free throws.
Both of his 3-pointers to start the fourth quarter would give the Cougars a 33-29 lead.
“I was confident,” Radovich said despite his first-quarter struggles. “I missed four shots in the first quarter, but I kept confident. I knew it would eventually go in. I just kept shooting.”
With Hibbert hitting a layup to cut Cresskill’s lead to 39-35, it was Hayward who put the finishing touches to this game. He hit a layup and then executed a three-point play to give the Cougars a 43-37 lead that they would not relinquish again, even when Figueroa (he scored seven of his nine points in the last five minutes of the game) hit a three-pointer with 40 seconds left to give the Lions a chance despite trailing 45-42.
“I did not think the game was over,” Hayward said of him making the beeline to score a layup that would be good for a three-point play. “We did not get back on defense and they hit that shot (Figueora’s three-pointer).”
It was over when Hayward hit two free throws with 15.2 seconds to go in the game, giving the Cougars a 47-42 lead.
As the clock ticked down to zero, it was bedlam as one would expect when the home team won a championship. The players and coaches celebrated with the fans as the media members were hunting them down for an interview.
“It felt like winning the Super Bowl,” Radovich said. “It was surreal. It was incredible.”
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