by Andrew Garda
Timing is everything in life, and the Montclair High School girls basketball team couldn’t have timed their first County win any better. Especially as the 27-seeded Mounties’ 40-34 Essex County Tournament preliminary win over No. 22Montclair Kimberley Academy sends them to the next round and a Monday matchup with No 11 Newark Central.
That game takes place in Newark at 4pm.
First year head coach Ed Connell was proud of how his Mounties played, especially in such a tight game.
“I thought they played unbelievably,” he said after the win. “I thought they played their hearts out and you know, it was exactly what I wanted as a coach. One through twenty playing your hearts out, even if your job is to sit on the bench and support your teammates. They did it unbelievably today. There was energy for thirty-two minutes, which is not an easy thing to do. They did a great job.”
The Mounties had to keep that energy up as the Cougars refused to give up.
After falling behind MHS 11-5 in the first quarter, MKA outscored Montclair in the second 10-7. While the Mounties were buoyed by a big first from Kiera Hessler’s 9 points, MKA managed to contain her in the second quarter while Vanessa Amsinger scored five points, Patricia Columbia-Walsh scord three and Ayantu Flowers had two.
Amsinger would end up with 18 points and 10 rebounds to lead her team, while Flowers had 7 points and Columbia-Walsh finished with 6 points and nine rebounds.
Despite that, MHS kept it’s distance by spreading the scoring around. Even if nobody dominated the way Hessler did in the first, enough players made shots to keep the Cougars from closing the gap much.
To do that, they had to hold off a big MKA surge, which closed the gap to 14-12 with under four minutes left. MHS was aggressive all game, swarming the Cougars at both ends and disrupting MKA’s efforts to move the ball.
Every once in a while, however, that aggression left them vulnerable. During the 7-2 run which brought MKA to within a basket, the Cougars took advantage of several miscues on the part of Montclair, including turnovers.
MHS remained focused, however, and regained their composure.
Connell credited the that with his team staying supportive of each other during the parts of the game where they struggled.
“You know, even when they surged, our energy was able to overcome it,” he said. “We were able to support ourselves which was a huge advantage for us.”
Despite the occasional hiccups, the Mounties continued to play aggressively. That very clearly wore down the Cougars at times, something which happens when you only have one substitute. For Connell, that aggression — even when it goes wrong — is what the Mounties are about.
“You know, the brand of basketball we’re trying to bring in is trying to make other teams work for four quarters,” he explained. “Pressing [isn’t] necessarily about causing turnovers, but it’s working to keep them honest.”
The two teams traded punches in the third quarter, each scoring ten, with the Cougars able to get Amsinger going again while the Mounties kept ahead of them with key 3-point shots from Ayanna Brantley and Kamajarae Spencer.
In the fourth quarter, the Cougars kept fighting, but Montclair was able to limit the damage Amsinger could do. A tenacious defensive effort gave MKA very few clear shots, and the Mounties did a very good job rebounding to close out the game.
Amsinger would only score on two free throws in the fourth quarter and while Flowers added four points, MKA just couldn’t close the gap.
Aside from an aggressive and high energy press, one of the biggest keys for Montclair in the game was the ability to spread the ball out. Hessler would finish the game with a team high 11 points, but six other players contributed points during the game.
Janyia McGainey-Rodgers was just behind Hessler with 8 points, Ayannah Brantley had 7, Spencer finished with 6 — both on huge 3-point shots in the second half —Isis Russell had 4 points and Rahzier Kelly had 1.
That’s not to mention the many other players who came off the bench for a shift, girls who may not have sunk a shot but created turnovers, moved the ball well, rebounded hard and made sure the Mounties didn’t lose momentum with starters on the bench.
Every player on the bench is critical to success, according to Connell. No matter what their job is.
“Anytime you come in as a new coach, you feel like you don’t get to run your system for a while,” Connell said. “I feel like we’ve all finally bought in together, collectively, into what we’re trying to do. We are redefining what Montclair basketball is. There’s a lot of great past here. But we have to define what the 2019-2020 Montclair basketball is and I feel like we’re doing that now.”
Montclair will aim to keep that high energy and focus against a very tough Newark Central team. Their first county win came at a perfect time, and if the team is peaking now, a second could be close at hand.