by Andrew Garda
When you get any Montclair Kimberley Academy and Montclair High school team on the same field against each other, you’re generally in for a roller coaster ride.
That was certainly the case last Friday as the two boys basketball teams met. As the Mounties headed across town to face the Cougars, you could throw out the records, hot or cold streaks — any and all statistics, really — because none of that mattered, as both teams would be amped up for the game against their crosstown rival.
While physically more talented, and overall more athletic, the Mounties struggled to shake the Cougars throughout the game as MKA fought hard, dropping three point shots and disrupting MHS’ attempts to move the ball around the perimeter. MKA even managed to have the Mounties on the ropes twice in the second half, first by outscoring them 21-17 in the third quarter to pull to just three points back on the strength of four three point shots and again after Luke Kolaja sent the rafters shaking with a dunk in the fourth which got the Cougars faithful on its feet.
It wasn’t enough, as the Mounties defense asserted itself, clamping down on MKA and throttling their offense, limiting it to just three Kolaja baskets. MHS denied the Cougars the perimeter shots which had kept MKA afloat for three quarters, forcing them inside and making them sweat for the few buckets they managed. While the MHS defense made life miserable for the MKA offense, Zion Wyatt and Charles Murphy Jr hit key shots to firm up the Mountie lead.
In the end, the Mounties walked out of the gym with a 67-58 win that was closer than the final score.
That’s been the way things have gone for both teams, though.
The Cougars (5-5, 4-2) have been able to hold their own in the Independence Division, but have struggled outside of it, going 1-3. The Mounties have been overmatched in the American, winning just one game in it — a 49-41 victory Tuesday night against Barringer — but all four of their games out of it.
The Mounties have struggled with consistency this year, and the start of the game against MKA was no different, as the Cougars came out hard in the first quarter, scoring 9 unanswered points, 7 of which came from a red-hot Carter McNeal.
The problem, MHS coach Gary Wallace said after the game, was pretty simple.
“We weren’t executing, we weren’t being in position defensively,” Wallace said. “We were just taking each possession for granted, not valuing the basketball. Granted, we weren’t turning the ball over, but we were just taking bad shots. We weren’t going to the offensive glass like we should and on defense we were just letting balls go by us.”
Wallace made some substitutions to adjust, but what really got them back into the game was the play of Wyatt.
It was only Wyatt’s second game back on the court (he scored 9 in a loss to Seton Hall Prep on Jan. 9) after sustaining an ankle injury in the preseason, and he made his presence felt. His 7 points helped spark a Mounties run that put them on top 19-17 at the end of the first.
“It’s great to have him back, even though he’s been driving me crazy the last four games,” Wallace said of Wyatt. “Tonight he let the game come to him, and he read the game well. When guys closed out, he attacked and when they stepped off him, he pulled up.”
The momentum of Wyatt and his fellow Mounties carried into the second quarter as well, as he accounted for 10 of MHS’ 19 points and Montclair extended its lead to 38-31 at the half. Isaiah McPherson’s 5 points and a key Murphy 3-point shot helped as well.
Then came MKA’s big third quarter and the Mounties finding themselves once again in a dogfight. During that stretch, MKA was able to stifle Wyatt from the floor, limiting him to just 5 points in the entire second half.
With the attention on Wyatt, though, other Mounties found themselves free to make some shots. Murphy had a pair of baskets, with Tarrin Earle, McPherson and Destin Virgil adding scores as well to seal the deal.
Along with big shots down the stretch, the Mounties also beat the Cougars soundly on the boards.
The Mounties managed to snag 26 balls off the glass on offense, giving themselves ample opportunity for second-chance shots, while, the Cougars managed just 9 offensive rebounds for the game.
Combine that with MKA’s 19 turnovers and you have a formula for letting a winnable game get away from you.
Now both teams gear back up for divisional play, and while Wallace knows it will be tough, he’s also optimistic. He pointed to recent close games against West Side and Seton Hall Prep as indicators of how the Mounties can compete when they avoid bad mistakes and stay focused.
“I feel like even though the win/loss column might not show it, we’re getting better every day,” he said.
For Jones, while his team was disappointed, they shouldn’t hang their heads.
“I think the kind of energy we played with tonight, we need to bring it every day,” MKA head coach Tony Jones said. “If they want to have a shot with teams like this, who might be more athletic, bigger or playing in a tougher division, there are certain things we have to do better. And they know that.”