by Andrew Garda
NEWARK— It’s going to be all Immaculate, all the time Saturday afternoon at Essex County College.
The No. 5-seeded ICHS girls basketball team did their part Thursday night as they sent defending champion and top-seeded Newark Tech home with a 56-39 dismantling. Now the Lady Lions face No. 3-seeded West Orange at 1pm, after the Mountaineers beat No. 6-seeded East Orange 46-44.
It’s the first final the ICHS girls team has been in since 1990, while the Mountaineers will be vying for their first ever title.
Then, the No. 2-seeded ICHS boys will face 1-seed Newark East Side on the same court.
“It’s tremendous. I’ve never been a part of that, ever,” said head coach Joe Whalen. “No matter where I’ve coached I’ve never been a part of both teams being in the championship.”
“It’s just an amazing thing,” Nasira Williams said. “Both of us in the championship, I don’t think it’s ever been done before. It’s an amazing thing for the school. We’re trying to change the culture here.”
“It’s great,” Whalen added. “We can root for each other and our boys team is an easy team to root for. Good kids, very talented, well coached.”
The chance that both teams were going to play Saturday seemed no sure thing in the first half, as the Terriers ran out to a 10-6 lead in the opening frame. The Lions’ only baskets were a pair of 3-pointers from Nasira Williams.
ICHS executed more effectively on offense in the second quarter, scoring 15 points, but defensively they continued to struggle to do more than slow Tech down, and still trailed 23-21 at the half.
Williams, who scored 13 of her 20 points in the first two quarters, made sure her teammates knew she couldn’t carry the whole offense and defense by herself.
“In the first half, we really weren’t making shots. I told them that, I couldn’t be the only one who made shots. We all had to make shots,” Nasira Williams said.
She wasn’t alone in that belief, as Taylor Williams said she went into the locker-room determined to fire her team up as well.
“Soon as we hit the locker-room, I looked at my team and I said ‘We’re not going home,” Taylor said. “That was my mindset in the second half. The game was too close, [Tech] was too comfortable. I just wanted everybody to feel my desire, my heart that I had to win this game today.”
The team responded.
Both Azatah Lawrence and Kendra Lawrence rebounding fiercely at both ends, boxing out the Terriers and limiting what Tech could do offensively or defensively, while Taylor would score 15 of her 17 points in the second half. She also fought hard for both rebounds and 50-50 balls, at one point diving to the court to try and retrieve one.
The Lions defense stepped up its game as well, harassing the Terriers at every turn and preventing them from getting a clear look at the basket.
Even when Tech got open, the shots just wouldn’t fall. ICHS outscored them an eye-popping 19-7 in the third quarter and all told, the Terriers could only manage 16 points to the Lions’ 35 in the entire second half.
For Whalen, seeing his team step up and do what needed to be done—on their own—was as good a feeling as the win.
“There was one point in the game there, where [Tech] jumped us to press us and the girls immediately went into our press-breaker without any acknowledgement from me or anything, and as a coach, that’s what you want,” he said. “You want them to self-correct,, on the fly because at the end of the day, I only have five timeouts. There’s only so many adjustments i can make, and its always best when they make the adjustments, they’re the ones on the floor.”
The team knows Whalen has that faith in them, whether it’s to make adjustments on the court or the freedom to take 3-point shots whenever they have an opening and that makes them work even harder.
“It’s great,” Nasira Williams said. “It makes me have confidence in myself and this is the best I or my team has been shooting, so it’s been a good thing.”
The results are clear on the court, and should serve the team well come Saturday.
That doesn’t mean the Lions will stand pat. They’ll be back in the gym Friday, honing their craft.