by Andrew Garda
The Montclair Kimberley Academy girls basketball team has worked hard and come a long way from their last meeting with their opposite number from Belleville, a three-point loss on opening night, Dec. 14.
This time out, the Cougars beat the Buccaneers 39-27.
“It’s a big improvement from the beginning of the season,” Coach Ilirjana Lulgjuraj said after the win. “We did a lot better job in this game of rebounding the ball, being more aggressive and scoring.”
Last time out, the majority of the offense fell to junior Amanda Mack. The three-sport athlete scored 19 of MKA’s 27 points, and it looked like it might be more of the same as she put nine points on the board in the first quarter to give MKA a 11-4 lead.
Belleville clamped down on her in the second quarter though, and the court seemed to tilt in the Buccaneers’ favor, with them cutting into MKA’s lead, trailing just 13-10 at the half.
With Mack boxed in, someone needed to step up, and Lauren Muscarelle was the one to do it.
The tall center scored six of MKA’s seven third quarter points helping the Cougars keep pace with the Buccaneers, who led 21-20 after three quarters.
She then scored six points in the fourth quarter, four of which came during a 14-0 run the Cougars kicked off the period with. She also assisted on two baskets during that stretch.
Muscarelle was dominant inside, rounding up balls off the glass at both ends of the court and defending the interior against Belleville’s bigger players.
“I’m very proud of her,” Lulgjuraj said.
As for Mack, she’s not troubled by a game where she isn’t the heart of the offense.
“It’s definitely a great feeling because I’m not always the one shooting and being able to take over,” Mack said. “I know my teammates have my back.”
Aside from Muscarelle, the Cougars were also buoyed by a great defensive effort from Ayantu Flowers and aggressive overall play by Marisa Snee.
Snee is one of Lulgjuraj’s players who doesn’t have much experience, but the coach said she makes up for it in enthusiasm.
“She’s very aggressive,” Lulgjuraj said. “[Snee’s] new to basketball, so she’s still learning as she’s going, but she did step up in a big way today. She ran the point a couple of times, which she is not too familiar with, and she did a great job.”
At one point, Snee made a very nice pass from the wing to Ayantu as she was cutting to the basket. Ayantu scored, and there were smiles all around.
“They were so happy and I was like ok, ok you can smile a little bit, right?” Lulgjuraj said. “Even though it was a close game”
That’s one thing which is evident watching this team: they are having fun. While they are determined to win and do their best, they aren’t letting bumps and hiccups on the floor get in the way of enjoying the game.
Mack said that’s all the doing of their coach.
“Coach Ily has taught us to realize that being frantic and freaking out when we’re down by five points isn’t a good thing to focus on,” Mack said. “We need to calm down and focus on getting back and focus on our goals for the game.”
“They are passionate so that’s great, it’s just about channeling their excited energy into focused and determined energy,” the coach said. “Which you saw we did that last quarter, [something] we’ve been struggling with during the year. But I think they’re starting to pick up on that and understand what that means. So it’s great as a coach to see them happy and smiling.”
The Cougars are hoping to have more fun and another win against Newark Central on the road Thursday, Jan. 24 at 7 p.m.