by Andrew Garda
SUMMIT — Most of the time, high school basketball coaches will tell their players that if you want to win, you have to play four full quarters.
The truth is, sometimes you can get away with a little bit less, if that little bit is dominating.
That was the case on Thursday afternoon, as the Montclair Kimberley Academy Cougars boys basketball team beat Newark Academy by a score of 60-42 to advance to the finals in the NJ Prep Holiday Classic.
For just under 28 minutes, both the Cougars and the Minutemen struggled to get the ball into the basket. Another thing coaches talk about is there being a “lid” on the basket when teams are struggling to score, and it certainly seemed to be the case on Thursday as both teams shot poorly from the floor.
Then the light came on for MKA. With just under four minutes to go in the game and leading 47-40, the Cougars went on a 15-2 run, sparked by senior Carter McNeal’s coast-to-coast effort which ended in a layup.
The Cougars would outscore Newark Academy 15-2 during the ensuing run, dominating the final frame with a 22-6 effort.
Head coach Tony Jones didn’t know quite what triggered the turnaround, but he was happy the Cougars pulled it together.
“The fourth quarter has been our best quarter this year so far,” he said after the win. “Even when we lost the other day [to Nutley], we were down 7 or 8 going into the fourth.”
While they lost, the Cougars pulled to within three points at the end.
Coming out of the third quarter against Newark Academy, Montclair Kimberley was struggling. MKA led by just a basket, and was coming off a period where they were only able to score nine points. Much of the reason they were able to maintain a lead at all was due to the play of center Luke Kolaja.
The big sophomore was a defensive beast on Thursday, blocking six shots and grabbing a dozen rebounds to keep control of the ball. He followed up one block by stealing the ball from the Minuteman he was guarding, then completely off-balanced, proceeded to feed the ball down the court to Brandon Carter.
That kind of athleticism is surprising in a high school big man as it is, but even more impressive for the intelligence and poise shown to grab the ball and find an open man while falling out of bounds.
Despite the win, Jones knows he and his staff have a lot of work to do. Against a hotter team, the Cougars’ cold spell on the floor might have sunk them. MKA’s problem wasn’t getting open shots, but making them and sometimes, even pulling the trigger, as in many instances the Cougars seemed to hesitate and pass the ball off despite having a shot themselves.
“It was good. It was a nice quarter,” Jones said. “We were just sloppy. We’ve got a lot of things we need to work on.”
There’s no real time to work that out in practice though, as the Cougars now play Oratory in the final. Oratory is 3-0 on the season and is coming off a decisive win over Pingry to get to the final. Making it even harder, the tournament is on Oratory’s home court, so the crowd will definitely be with them.