By Mike Kinney | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Montclair Immaculate had the size advantage, which it exploited mightily in the second half, it had an effective full-court press and also a big dose of vengeful energy stored up from its championship loss a year ago.
But what Immaculate did not have was Anas Amos.
Newark East Side found itself in an unexpectedly tense predicament after building a 19-point lead in the third quarter, but the 5-9 Amos, as usual, helped the Red Raiders find their way out of it. Just as he had 99 times before.
Second-seeded Immaculate, ranked No. 17 in the NJ.com Top 20, conducted a furious late rally behind those aforementioned qualities, but top-seeded and 17th-ranked East Side weathered the surge and held on for a 69-66 victory in the Essex County Tournament final Saturday at Essex County College in Newark.
That marked the 100th victory for East Side with Amos in the starting lineup.
With that tight win, East Side (22-4) claimed its third straight title and sixth overall. Immaculate (17-9) was seeking its first championship in its second consecutive final appearance.
Senior guard Nasir Johnson scored 23 points, senior swing Mikah Johnson and senior guard James Paul each added 14 and Amos finished with nine points, eight rebounds, six assists and two steals. And not one of those stats speaks directly of the leadership Amos provides throughout the game, or provides notation on the good decisions he made that did not necessarily result in a bucket or an assist.
“I feel like I make good decisions. I feel like when I have the ball in my hands, everything is going to go good,” Amos said. “We’re gonna win the game no matter what the other team does.”
Junior center Elijah Hutchins-Everett scored a game-high 25 points and had nine rebounds, junior guard Zion Bethea scored 13 points and sophomore guard Amar’e Marshall dropped in 11 for Immaculate.
With the Lions continually calling on the 6-10 Hutchins-Everett with low-post feeds after intermission, the big guy produced 23 of his total in the second half to bring his team back from near-irrelevancy to serious contention.
“That’s a tough team; they don’t ever quit,” Amos said of Immaculate, which split two meetings withe Red Raiders this season in Super Essex Conference-American Division play. “We just had to stick together. As long as we stayed together and played defense at the end, we would find a way to pull it out.”
Few could know better than Amos, who has marching in his own little milestone parade this past week for the benefit of the squad. On Thursday, he surpassed 1,000 career points with 10 in a 70-62 victory over Payne Tech. He dropped in 20 last week in East Side’s semifinal win over Seton Hall Prep, 73-67.
It is true that Amos dd not even half his total against Seton Hall in this final, but that was precisely the goal of Immaculate when it dispense fullcourt pressure in the second half and gave Zakai Zeigler the job of shadowing Amos everywhere he went.
The strategy definitely kept the ball out of Amos’ hands on many possessions and forced his teammates to either take the reins of the offense, or succumb to the pressure. Nasir Johnson made his intentions clear by striking for nine points in the fourth quarter. There was good team balance in the third with Mikah Johnson, Paul, Denze Small and Jared White all connecting for four points.
“When they pressured Nas, we’ve got ball handlers like Nasir Johnson, James Paul, Jared white and me,” Mikah Johnson said. “When Nas was getting denied, we just made plays for our team.”
East Side was looking like the championship teams of 2017 and ’18 by coasting to a 52-33 lead with 1:38 remaining in the third quarter. But just when the lead seemed a little too far out of reach, Bethea drove through the lane, Hutchins-Everett hit a putback and Donta Davis converted a pass from Zeigler inside to cut the deficit to 52-37 with 28 seconds to go in the quarter.
“We kind of got a little lazy on defense,” Mikah Johnson said. “We had to calm down, relax and just make sure that everyone was doing their job.”
East Side could have made the fourth-quarter spree by Hutchins-Everett a bit less harrowing had it simply taken better care of matters at the foul line. The Red Raiders made just 11 of 23. Immaculate, on the other hand, might have been playing a game of the what-ifs on the ride home after the game. The Lions were only 7 of 17 from the stripe in the final period.
Mike Kinney may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @MikeKinneyHS.