Eastside High School junior Jahaan Green drives towards the basket as Paul VI's Pat Alemi, left, and Josh Eli, right, defend during the game played in Camden, New Jersey on Monday, December 19, 2022. Collin Conway/D2 Sports Network
CAMDEN (N.J.) - The Eastside High School boys basketball team's state title defense began with movie trips and trampoline parks.
The Tigers returned only one player from last season's NJSIAA Group 3 state championship team. Social gatherings emerged as the method designed to build chemistry during the offseason.
"It started off the court," junior Willy Love said. "We did a lot of outings together such as trampoline parks, movies, everything of that sort. When we got on the court it was like we was in the backyard."
No. 4 Eastside showed no signs of discourse as it cruised past No. 5 Paul VI, 67-51, in an Olympic Conference National Division showdown on Monday night.
Four different players posted double figures for the Tigers in the triumph.
Love, a four-star football recruit, is the only player that stepped on the floor at Jersey Mike's Arena in Piscataway for last season's state final. He currently holds offers from Georgia, Penn State, Oregon, Ole Miss, Cincinnati, Texas A&M, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, Michigan State, Maryland and Nebraska, among others. The junior has also generated interest from Alabama and Ohio State.
He's been counted on to exemplify the standards of Eastside basketball and unite his teammates in the process. His leadership pedigree and toughness has translated to the hardwood.
"My defensive mindset, my ballhawk ability turns over (to the court) very well," Love said. "As you can see, I had blocks and stops."
Junior Jahaan Green posted a team-high 15 points for the new-look Tigers. Love added 12, Paul VI transfer Cairo Rivera contributed 11 and Pennsauken transfer Jalen Long tallied 10.
Rashee Bell, a cousin of Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kyle Anderson, provided an interior presence and charted eight points, 11 rebounds, four assists and three blocks.
Coach Kenny Avent's group capitalized by forcing turnovers via a menacing full court press. The Tigers appeared to be in midseason form as they dived ferociously on the floor for loose balls, battled through contact, and wore out their opponent in the open court with their speed.
"Coach instills the discipline in us," Green, a Kingsway transfer, said. (He) tells us our best offense is our defense. We had to put the pressure on them. If we come out lazy, we're not going to get the win."
A monster two-hand slam dunk by Rivera provided Eastside with a 63-45 advantage with less than two minutes to play and placed an exclamation point on the triumph against his former team.
"It feels good," the senior said.
2022 South Jersey Sports Zone Rookie of the Year Emmanuel Joe-Samuel powered the Eagles with a game-high 18 points. Deptford transfer Josh Eli scored 13 and provided a pair of dunks in the third quarter to keep Paul VI within striking distance.
The Eagles trailed by as much as 17 points, but Eli's third quarter burst helped close the frame on a 14-7 run. Paul VI trailed by 10 entering the fourth quarter.
"We're a young team," Paul VI coach Tony Devlin said. "They outplayed us in a lot of ways. I think our inexperience showed. Our goal is to be the best we can be in March. These are the games that will help us."
Despite a lack of familiarity, the Tigers were at least able to enter the season prepared. Last season, Avent wasn't officially named the coach until November 8, a week and a half before tryouts. Players were ineligible as physicals remained unsubmitted, and the team was unable to engage in preseason conditioning, fall leagues and team bonding exercises.
Eastside's season opener against Egg Harbor Township marked the first time the team participated in five-on-five live action.
Avent assured that will never happen on Federal Street again. The Tigers prepared for three complete weeks for tonight's season opener.
"They've been working hard every day," the 2022 SJ Sports Zone Coach of the Year said. "No games should be harder than our practices. We try to make our practices 10 times harder than our games. They've been beating up on each other for three weeks. They finally got an opportunity to go out and beat up on someone else."