De’Ashia Jones and Zaire O’Neil have no issues with Ricshar Benjamin exploring the space beyond the 3-point line. In fact, the sophomore posts get rather excited when the senior guard begins to launch from long range.
Their joy is two-fold. First, at the rate the streaking-shooting Benjamin connects, Shabazz can turn a close game into sizeable margin in an instant. But, when she slips into one of her sprees, opponents have not choice but to scrap the zone defense that collapses around Jones and O’Neil inside.
“It makes it a lot easier for us,” O’Neil said. “If a team is in a zone, now they have to jump out to get to the corners.”
Benjamin had Bloomfield Tech scrambling with an explosive opening display of perimeter efficiency. Her three consecutive 3-pointers to begin the game drew defenders to the perimeter and off Jones and O’Neil.
Liberated, the duo thanked their teammate the best way they knew how, by seizing control of the paint as top-seeded and defending champion Shabazz, No. 1 in the MSG Varsity New Jersey Top 15, clicked early and never looked back on the way to a 69-44 victory over fifth-seeded Bloomfield Tech on Saturday night in the semifinals of the Essex County Tournament at Newark Tech.
The fast start by Benjamin highlighted a 29-8 opening surge in which Shabazz shot a torrid 12 of 17 from the field and created ample space underneath for O’Neil and Jones to capitalize upon.
Jones showed off her quick, nimble feet by dropping in 10 of her 14 points during the initial surge and was also a force on the glass with 11 rebounds. Not to be outdone, O’Neil was equally swift in the blocks, rejecting four shots to go with her 20 points and 10 boards.
And, much of the credit for the workload belonged to Benjamin, whose explanation for her hot streak made it sound as simple as it looked.
“Run to a corner on the play and lift my shot over my shoulder,” said Benjamin, who matched her season high with 15 points. “All I had to do was wait for Aliyyah to get me the ball.”
Which Aliyyah Handford did. Often counted on to spark the offense with buckets, the senior point guard looked at ease feeding the fire by working the hot hands of Benjamin on three of Shabazz’s first four trips down the floor.
Alleviated from carrying the bulk of the scoring load, Handford was given the chance to exhibit her full-range as a playmaker. She supplied just seven points but dealt seven assists, cleared five rebounds, came up with four steals and even had some time to admire the agility of her bigs.
“She could be the point,” Handford said with a chuckle in regards to Jones. “She can handle the ball and I’ve seen her bring it up the floor. And, Zaire is can do the same thing. It’s actually fun to watch.”
Maybe so, but it’s definitely not a barrel of laughs to defend. Shabazz scored in virtually every way possible. Handford delivered in transition, she executed to get others involved in the halfcourt and even went inside to basically overload Bloomfield Tech’s defense that was already busy trying to contain Jones and O’Neil.
When Handford snuck in for a putback with under three minutes to play in the first half, she gave Shabazz (19-1) its largest lead to that point at 39-12.
Ashunae Durant and Kyiarah English scored 13 apiece for Bloomfield Tech (16-6).
Gregg Lerner covers girls basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @gregglerner