Point guard Al-Jahaad Bradford served Irvington well Saturday afternoon as the prototypical playmaker.
But the 5-8 junior played perhaps an even more important role for bigger county and state games along the way by also being the pesky play-stopper.
Bradford scored 17 points and recorded eight assists, including six in the first half, and also used his quickness and savvy to stall the county’s top scorer and propel sixth-seeded Irvington to a 72-45 win over 11th-seeded Central in the first round of the 66th Essex County Tournament in Irvington.
Senior forward Dasawn Lewis scored 18 points and pulled down nine rebounds and sophomore Shakur Juiston and senior Jaylen Baytops each produced double-doubles to send well-balanced Irvington (13-4) into the quarterfinals Saturday against third-seeded Bloomfield in Bloomfield.
The Blue Knights were in sync and unselfish almost all game, and that was a credit to the cool but energetic floor play of Bradford. And the defense was cohesive and extremely stubborn, and that also was a direct reflection upon Bradford, who helped hold talented guard Brandon Waiters (24.2 ppg.) to just seven points, matching his season low earlier this season against powerhouse St. Anthony.
“Coach (Eugene Robinson) wanted me to contain him, not let him drive. If he drives, help defense,” Bradford said. “The playmaking would come; he just wanted us to play smart defense and take the offense play by play.”
Irvington’s outstanding defensive effort and its well-rounded offense had the Blue Knights definitely looking like a team capable of reaching the ECT final for a second straight year.
They made a surprise trip to that level (losing to Seton Hall Prep) as the No. 11 seed in 2011, so would presumably travel a less grueling course this time at No. 6. The way Irvington played on Saturday, it looked perfectly capable of another championship visit.
“We came out playing hard because were trying to get back to the county tournament championship,” the 6-4 Lewis said. “When we came out here, I knew we were gonna be ready because we played good D. When we do that, we can beat anybody we play.”
The Blue Knights raised their winning streak to five games and sent Central (8-8) to its fourth loss in the past five games. Irvington had preceded its current streak with a 1-3 slump that included losses to Shabazz, Seton Hall and East Side.
“We had a little down time, but we just had to get back up,” Lewis said. “We were thinking that we were better than we really were. That’s how it got out of hand.”
Out of hand. That last expression was the antithesis of Irvington’s clean, smart play against Central. The Blue Knights ran the floor off their strong rebounding (a 48-32 edge), settled into a crisp halfcourt offense when numbers weren’t there, and they did it all with very few mistakes. Irvington committed only eight turnovers, five after three quarters.
“I was happy with the guys. They stuck to the plan,” Robinson said. “When Central played zone, we were doing a good job of not turning it into a 3-point contest. We’re attacking the gaps with the dribble and we’re attacking the gaps with the pass.”
Lewis drew the early hot hand against the zone with two 3-pointers and a transition layup for eight points as the Blue Knights claimed a 12-9 lead in the first quarter. Central stuck with zone for most of the second period and Bradford and Baytops each netted six points to help push the lead to 33-21.
“The offense came early because Day-Day (Lewis) came out making shots and that spread the floor. I just kept it going,” Bradford said. “When he’s on, we’re all on.
“The idea,” he said, “was play smart, don’t force nothing, play together as a group, help each other.”
The support system was robust in the paint, with Juiston (12 points) and Baytops (10) pulling down 11 rebounds each and Dalins Merceus collecting seven points and eight rebounds from off the bench with the 6-7 Juiston in early foul trouble.
“Juiston just couldn’t get it going early, but Dalins stepped right in and we didn’t miss a beat,” Robinson said. “We’re developing a little depth and that’s what we need around this time.”
Sophomore guard Keywon Savage scored 18 points and had three assists and senior forward Davon Benoit finished with 11 points and five rebounds for Central. Savage turned in an impressive third quarter with eight points, but Juiston outdid him in the precocious sophomore competition with 10 points, five rebounds, two blocks and two steals that period as Irvington forged a 50-38 lead.
“I’ve been here 10 years and it seemed in the past like we just couldn’t get bounces. We’re getting those bounces this year,” Robinson said. “That’s a tribute to how hard these kids work and prepare in practice. They play hard for the most part and when you do that, sometimes those bounces do go your way.”
Mike Kinney covers boys basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKinneyHS