ICHS’ Tahirah Kelley is bottled up by a pair of University defenders during the second quarter of Immaculate’s ECT loss on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020.

by Andrew Garda

WEST ORANGE—In basketball, sometimes you just can’t buy a basket.

That was the case for the third-seeded Immaculate Conception girls basketball team this past Saturday, Feb. 22, during their 61-34 Essex County Tournament finals loss to top-seeded University.

Leading by a point late in the second quarter, ICHS (19-8) suffered an 11-minute stretch without a basket, including the entirety of the third quarter. By the time senior Nasira Williams ended the drought, the Lions faced a deficit, 37-21, that they could not overcome.

“We just couldn’t find the bottom of the net,” head coach James Kreie said after the game. “That’s all it was. We got the shots, we got to the rim, we just couldn’t find out how to advance the ball to get the basketball to fall in.”

It didn’t help that they faced an opponent playing for the only trophy they could play for. University, the defending NJSIAA Group I champion and boasting a pair of Division I recruits, was banned from this year’s NJSIAA Tournament after exceeding the state’s disqualification limit following a benches-clearing brawl during a Jan. 10 game against Newark Tech. (Immaculate was not allowed to compete in the 2018 state tournament for the same reason.)

Thus, University’s tournament season ended Saturday regardless of the outcome, and they looked to go out with a statement win in the county final. The Phoenix’s intensity made the scoring drought doubly hard to overcome. 

ICHS’ head coach James Kreie tries to fire up his team during a break in the second half of their Essex County championship game against University.

But the Lions were in the game early, taking a 19-18 lead on an Azatah Lawrence shot late in the second. But that lid went on the basket, and University responded with 19 consecutive points and never looked back.

Kreie said he was proud of the effort his team gave, regardless of the outcome.

“I think everybody on the team stepped up,” he said. “That’s my opinion. I think everybody on the team did what they were supposed to do, and we just came out of it on the short end this time.”

ICHS was led by Williams and Lawrence, who both scored 9 points, with Tahirah Kelley adding 5 points and Bukky Akinsola 4 points to the ledger.

Immaculate still has much to play for, however. They can clinch their third 20-win season in four years with a win in the first round of the NJSIAA North Jersey, Non-Public B tournament this Tuesday, March 3. The Lions are seeded sixth in the bracket, and host 11th-seeded Lodi Immaculate at 4 p.m.

Should they advance, ICHS would travel to No. 3 Marist in the quarterfinals next Thursday, March 5.

Kreie said his team knows what it needs to do to prepare.

“Film study and scouting. That’s it,” he said. “We already know who we are. We’re good. We’re ready to win a state title.”