by Andrew Garda
They started out slow, but by the end of regulation, the No. 5-seeded Immaculate Conception girls basketball team had left 12-seeded Bloomfield in the dust on the way to a 78-45 walloping of the Bengals in the first round of the Essex County Tournament on Saturday, Feb. 9.
Slow or fast, one thing is for sure — the Lady Lions are a force to be reckoned with.
Immaculate head coach Joe Whalen is a former rugby player and he said there’s a rugby saying he’s trying to get the team to follow.
“Retaliate first,” Whalen said. “We didn’t do that. We kind of let Bloomfield get a little comfortable but we eventually wore them down, kept them out of the paint, got to the shooters a little bit better.”
One of the biggest hurdles early on was the Bengals’ Sarah Edmund, whose 17 rebounds alone were more than the Lions had all game long. Edmunds had 13 in the first half, and ICHS had to adjust and remove her from the equation to contain the Bengals’ second chance baskets.
Whalen said the team did a better job of boxing Edmunds out and attacking the glass in the second half, but while the Lions adjusted during halftime, Whalen said he didn’t have to tell the players what to do.
Whalen is big on self-correcting. He wants his players to know what went wrong and how to fix it without the heavy hand of the coaching staff coming into play. The team did just that on Saturday.
“These are competitive athletes and they want to play,” said Whalen. “They’re smart, they know what we needed to do to win. and we needed to close out on their shooters quicker and we need to rebound the ball and we did that in the second half.”
As they did in the second half, the Lions are rolling through the late part of their season, peaking just right for tournament time. Part of the key to their run over the 2019 portion of their season has been the arrival of transfer players such as Azatah Lawrence, formerly of Lodi Immaculate.
Lawrence had a massive second quarter on Saturday, scoring 10 of her 22 points, including two three-point shots which turned a four-point lead into a 10-point lead.
Whalen said new players like Lawrence — who had to sit out for 30 days due to transfer rules — have easily fit into the Lions’ scheme.
“They’ve been playing against our starters for two and a half months,” he said. “So, they know what it takes to be successful. They play the way we play. They shoot the ball well, they get up and down the court in transition, and they play good hard defense.”
Lawrence also stepped up at the glass, and her efforts, along with that of Justise Jones, helped the Lions keep the Bengals from getting second chances in the third and fourth quarter.
Whalen was especially pleased with Jones, a sophomore transfer who, like Lawrence, came from Lodi Immaculate.
“We put Justise in there and that turned the tide in rebounding,” Whalen said. “We started to win that battle. And it didn’t hurt us, we started to get up and down the floor, she made a nice three, so that still fits into the way we like to play.”
Immaculate took on Arts on the road Saturday, and Lawrence had another big day, dropping a trio of 3-point shots to lead the team with 17 points. ICHS beat Arts soundly, 57-38 and now take on top-seeded Newark Tech on Wednesday, February 11 on the road in the ECT semis.
A win and the Lions have punched their ticket to the finals.