MKA senior Jack O’Connell goes up for a shot to score one of his team-leading 22 points during the Cougars’ 55-51 ECT win over Science Park on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2020.

by Andrew Garda

The Montclair Kimberley Academy boys basketball team fought hard and stayed aggressive at both ends of the court on Thursday Jan. 30, as they beat Science Park 55-51 in the first preliminary round of the Essex County Tournament.

MKA constantly pressed SP, disrupting the Chargers at every turn, deflecting passes, grabbing rebounds and generally harassing their opponents into making mistakes.

Meanwhile, the offense for MKA was humming, led by Noah Walk and Jack O’Connell, who scored five and seven points respectively during the first quarter.

O’Connell’s efforts would eventually lead to 22 points on the day, leading all MKA scorers, while Walk and Isiah Udofa would each score ten.

By the end of the first, Montclair Kimberley had run out to a 17-5 lead and appeared to be in total control.

“Our goal was to be aggressive,” MKA head coach Tony Jones said after the game. “Our goal was to knock them out early. You try and be the more aggressive team. And for a while it worked.”

It stopped working early in the second quarter, when Science Park seemed to get their feet. The Chargers would go on a 12-1 run, with MKA not scoring from the floor until there was only 1:52 left in the half.

“You have to be able, when teams punch back, you’ve got to be able to counter,” Jones said. “And I don’t think we were great with that today.”

It wasn’t for lack of trying and even when they were unable to score, MKA dominated possession. 

However, while the Cougars waited until they had a good shot before taking it during the first quarter, that was not the case in the second. Instead, MKA would suddenly seem frantic in the middle of a play, and launch an ill-conceived shot, which often clanged off the rim.

“I mean we’re playing three freshmen and two juniors, and only have one senior who plays a whole bunch. So, we tend to get impatient sometimes, you know?” Jones said. “Almost as if “I don’t want to work to try to get a shot, so I’m just going to take a shot.” And we have to be better with that.”

Brennan Columbia-Walsh fights off a Science Park defender during MKA’s 55-51 ECT win on Jan. 31, 2020.

The Cougars managed to stay just ahead of the Chargers at half, leading 26-21 on the strength of scoring by Udofa and Dylan Sach, including several free throws.

When the teams returned from halftime, MKA once again featured a very aggressive mindset, harrying the Chargers on every possession, while also being more focused and patient with their own shots.

The result was a 12-3 run in the first four minutes of the quarter which built a 38-24 lead. Science Park would rally, outscoring MKA 9-4 to close the quarter, but the Cougars had stretched their lead to 42-33.

But that lead evaporated when Science Park roared back with nine straight points, tying the score at 42-all. MKA looked shocked at the turn of events, and Jones called a 30 second timeout to get his team back on track.

“You have to get them to understand that the teams are going to make runs, you know, they want to win just as much as you do. It’s really about how you respond,” Jones said. “And we were tentative for a big portion of the second quarter and also the fourth quarter where we’re watching them rebound.”

Jones said the physicality of the Chargers played a factor as well, but while they may have been the most physical team the Cougars have played this season, the Cougars can’t let things like that rattle them.

Head coach Tony Jones (right) and assistant coach Anthony Rea *left) have the Cougars in a good groove this season.

“At some point you have to match their physicality, right?” he said. “And we didn’t always do that. So they hung around.”

The Cougars responded.

First O’Connell sank a basket to give them back the lead. Then, Noah Wolk stole a pass, resulting in a Udofa basket to extend the lead to 47-42. Needing to clinch the game from the free throw line, O’Connell made three of four, and a Sach layup gave MKA a 52-44 cushion that would prove to be enough.

The momentum from the win was short-lived, as Livingston knocked the Cougars out of the county tournament on Saturday, Feb. 1, by a 75-31 score.

However, MKA bounced back with an 58-49 win over Cristo Rey Tuesday night, Feb. 4, to get back to .500 in SEC-Independence play. The Cougars travel to Newark to play Arts today, Thursday, Feb. 6, at 4:30 p.m. , and they will hit the road this Sunday, Feb. 9, for a Prep B quarterfinal at Wardlaw-Hartridge.