by Andrew Garda
By any measure, the Immaculate Conception High School girls basketball team’s 2018-19 season was a great one. The Lions won 20 games and were a perfect 12-0 in the Super Essex Conference-Liberty Division, reaching the championship game of the Essex County Tournament and the semifinals of a tough NJSIAA North Jersey, Non-Public B bracket — accomplishments that would make a great many New Jersey teams happy.
For the Lions, though, it’s not enough, at least according to new head coach James Kreie.
“We came ready to rock, we are ready to go,” he said as he watched his team go through drills during practice on Tuesday afternoon. “We’ve got hungry kids, we’ve got kids that want to get back to the top and we’ve got a couple of kids who came in ready to prove something.”
ICHS opens its season today, Thursday, Dec. 16, with a 4 p.m. home game against Nutley.
Two of the kids looking to finish what they started last season are seniors Nasira Williams and Jailyn Lucas. Williams averaged 12 points per game, and totaled 69 three-point shots during the 2018-19 season and in particular will be a big part of the offense once again. Also critical will be Azatah Lawrence, who averaged 11.5 points per game over just 18 outings after sitting out the first half of the season as a transfer. She also played physical in the paint, as she averaged 3.6 rebounds a game as well. Kendra Lawrence also sat out the first half of the season, but came on strong with 92 points and 54 rebounds.
All three of those players have experience from the deep runs into the ECT and NJSIAA tournaments last season, and they will be joined by four transfer students who will give ICHS even more experience.
Kreie, the former head coach for the junior varsity team at Newark Tech, welcomes two former players from that school in Kyra Brant and Olivia Wooten. Two other players will join Immaculate from public schools in Union County: Bukky Akinsola transfers in from Hillside, where she scored 267 points last season, and Tahirah Kelley (13 points and 4.5 rebounds per game) joins from Brearley High School.
Everybody — from the seniors to the transfers to the returning bench players — will be expected to contribute.
“We don’t have just one captain, we’ve got a bunch of kids that can do a bunch of things, in several different ways,” Kreie said.
That makes the Lions very dangerous and allows them to find a mismatch in the other team’s defense and exploit it.
“The most important thing is we have athleticism, we’re fast as hell, and we can shoot. So, if we want we can run in transition and hit our wings, take that mismatch, or look for pick and rolls, all that good stuff.”
The Lions have been moved up to the SEC’s top tier, the American Division, will test itself against some stiff competition again this year. Defending county champion West Orange, who held IC to 25 points in last year’s ECT final, is in the division, as are a tough University squad and Kreie’s former team, Newark Tech. All three of those teams ended last season ranked in NJ.com’s statewide Top 25, with University 12th, West Orange 17th, and Newark Tech 25th.
Immaculate, which ended last season ranked 30th in the state, will have plenty of
opportunities to prove they belong among the top teams in and out of the league. Kreie has put a tough schedule together both in the preseason and regular season to get his team battle-tested.
“We want to play as much top competition as possible,” he said, pointing out it was a big reason behind the choice to play in the No Boyz Allowed basketball league in Elizabeth this fall. “We played Manchester Township, St. John Vianney, St. Rose. We played the best of the best.”
The Lions will continue that trend this weekend in Maryland, when they play a pair of high-caliber opponents in a showcase, Sidwell Friends (D.C.) and Capitol Christian (Md.). Over the holiday break, they’ll face off with Rutgers Prep, Hudson Catholic, and the host team in the Mount St. Dominic Holiday Festival.
Immaculate will also play additional showcase games against a pair of nationally ranked Canadian teams, Niagara Prep and St. Laurent, as well as games against Nazareth (N.Y.) in the Mecca Tournament Showcase at the end of January in New York, and a nationally traveling team in Life Center.
All that leads into the heart of their conference schedule. By then, tough games should be old hat, according to Kreie.
“We want to play as much competition as possible. We aren’t shying away from anybody.”