The ice that Shabazz athletic trainer Stacy Smith wrapped around each of Aliyyah Handford’s knees upon her exit seemed a bit misplaced.
Considering the blistering pace the mercurial senior point guard promoted with end-to-end drives and flamboyant finishes at the rim, her feet were much more deserving candidates for some cooling relief.
Handford set a scorching pace that took a quarter to build but once it got rolling, never ceased. Her career-high 33 points balanced the dominating interior play of sophomore forwards Zaire O’Neil and De’Ashia Jones as defending champion Shabazz, No. 1 in The MSG Varsity New Jersey Top 15 stormed to a 100-64 decision over No. 14 Point Pleasant Boro on Sunday in the NJSIAA Group 2 state final before 1,735 at Pine Belt Arena in Toms River.
“Either I was going in for the layups or I was dishing off,” Handford said of her intent with each blinding foray into the lane. “Either way, they couldn’t stop it.”
Give Point Pleasant Boro (23-9) credit in one regard. The Panthers got Shabazz’s attention in the first quarter through their always-dangerous perimeter game. Junior guard Lauren Kelly stuck a pair of 3-pointers while her twin sister Kelly, who pumped in 30 points, and freshman Lindsey Havens each knocked down one to key a 21-18 lead at the end of the first quarter.
And, when Kelly Hughes opened the second with a piercing drive inside, Point Pleasant Boro extended its lead to five.
“We knew what we were up against and if we were going to have a shot at winning this game, we would have to hit our shots,” Point Pleasant Boro coach Dave Drew said. “And, we did and it was real exciting.”
What transpired thereafter was certainly enthralling, just not for Drew and Point Pleasant Boro.
Handford came up with a steal, one of six she made, and took it the distance for a layup and foul, which she converted to put Shabazz (30-1) in front, 26-25, with 6:43 showing. The three-point play touched off a defining 27-8 tear in which Handford accounted for 16 points to send the Bulldogs into the lockerroom with a 50-33 advantage.
Shabazz erupted for 32 points in the period with Handford scoring 18 in the stanza and 26 by intermission.
“It didn’t seem like I had that many points,” said Handford. “But, it felt good. I never had 30 points before.”
“She just gets better and better,” Shabazz coach Vanessa Watson said of Handford, who shot 14 for 20, grabbed nine rebounds and handed out 11 assists. “She knows she is unleashed as long as she’s playing smart. She has to have the ball in the beginning to get it going. I told her the middle is open and you gotta penetrate. She elevated her own game. When this team jumped out on us, I said are you in or are you out? She was in”
Lost amid the flurry of points was a subtle defensive adjustment Watson made when she inserted Aliyah Muhammad into the game to start the second quarter. With one defensive specialist, Naqaiyyah Teague put on Kelly Hughes, Muhammad defended Lauren Hughes after she netted eight points in the opening quarter. By just having those two pressure their respective marks, Shabazz limited Point Pleasant Boro to just a pair of 3-pointers over the final three quarters.
While Handford was the primary speed merchant in the Bulldogs’ high-speed offense, Jones and O’Neil were by no means left in her vapor trail.
Jones took a steal the distance during the second-quarter tear and finished with 20 points, eight rebounds, and five steals. Meanwhile, O’Neil was the beneficiary of some keen passes on the blocks that enabled her to score 23 to accompany her eight rebounds and eight blocks.
“The first quarter we had to wake up because they came out at us strong,” said Jones. “Usually, we come out strong, but they came out stronger. We had to finish even stronger.”
“We train like guards, there’s no positions in practice,” said O’Neil, who also ran the floor to make herself available on runouts. “Everybody does the same drills. They expect us to be sloppy because of our size, but we can break out and dish it off to Aliyyah.”
O’Neil and Ricshar Benjamin, who netted all 14 of her points in the second half, provided six points apiece in the third when the lead expanded to 29. The two combined for 17 points in the fourth to close out Shabazz’s fifth straight state title.
Shabazz went 45 for 74 from the field, outscored Point Pleasant Boro on the fast break, 26-5, won the battle on the glass convincing by a 43-30 rebounding margin and came up with 18 steals compared to five for the Panthers.
Gregg Lerner covers girls basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @GreggLerner