The challenge for head coach Akbar Cook early this season wasn't so much getting his guards to feed big man Joshua Morris inside.
The challenge was getting the 6-8 senior to eat.
Morris is nimble for his size, possesses a soft touch and he also isn't afraid of hard work. But his best work often seemed to be done at the defensive end or in the role of dispenser from the low block for Newark Vocational's cutters and perimeter shooters. Not as an interior scoring force.
"I said you've got to start punishing people on the blocks, whether it’s offense or defense," Cook said. "Don't give up layups and punish them when you get the ball. Catch, turn and look to score."
The guards again looked inside to Morris and this time he bit, finishing with a season-high 20 points and also 16 rebounds and four blocks to propel Newark Vocational to 72-61 victory over Weequahic Tuesday night at Newark Vocational. It was the Eagles' sixth straight win and they snapped an eight-game winning streak for Weequahic.
Senior guard Abdul Bey netted 20 points-- just six-tenths of a point under his season average-- and he grabbed eight rebounds while Kyle Teague and Amir Bey (Abdul's brother) scored 10 points apiece.
But the Eagles know what they're going to receive from Abdul Bey pretty much every game. Cook has tried convincing Morris since preseason that he can be that same consistent scoring threat.
"We have to be looking for our big guy," Cook said. "If we get him going, he's going to bring us far in the states. He's the most important piece. We need everybody as part of the puzzle, but he's our most important piece."
Those other pieces all made strong contributions to help the Eagles build further momentum for their Essex County Tournament first-round game against Shabazz Saturday. Teague recorded 11 rebounds and three steals, Jamal Smith, took down six rebounds and had two steals and Amir Bey, Abdul's brother, came up with four of the team's 13 steals.
"Everybody did their part, but the game was depending on him," Bey said of Morris. He was able box out and get a lot of offensive rebounds and keep giving us second chances."
Newark Vocational was able to parlay Morris' 12 first-half points into only a 33-31 lead, but it probably would have faced a deficit if not for his rugged play against Weequahic's Shakur Benbow and Dondre Warren in the lane. That allowed Bey to shake moderate shooting problems before he found his rhythm in the second half.
"We only a small lead in the first half, but we kept our intensity up," Morris said. ."We kept playing hard and we came out on top."
Warren closed with 17 points and 11 rebounds, Tyrone Anthony scored 14 points and Salhudine Simons added 10 for Weequahic, which capitalized on six Newark Vocational turnovers to open a 16-13 lead in the first quarter. It expanded to 24-16 early in the second period, but then Newark Vocational suddenly expanded Morris' role and the game changed.
He pumped in eight points in the last 4:34 of the half to help the Eagles grab that two-point lead. Morris scored on a putback to open the third quarter and had another later that period, but Bey had by then emerged as the team's unstoppable force.
Weequahic switched to man-to-man in the second half and Bey tore it apart with his smooth dribble penetration. He went coast-to-coast two straight times to open a 43-37 lead with 5:05 to go in the third quarter. Weequahic cut to within 43-40, but Bey sank two free throws after being fouled on another drive to spark a 15-0 run for a 58-38 lead with 59 seconds remaining.
"When they went to man-to- man it opened up the court a lot more," Bey said. "It gave me the opportunity to drive. I’d rather penetrate (that shoot from outside) because then I have more options. I can dish the ball off."
Mike Kinney covers boys basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKinneyHS