by Andrew Garda
CALDWELL — Immaculate Conception High School girl’s basketball team beat a tenacious Morris Catholic team on Saturday, March 7 with the help of a dominating first half, winning 58-48 to propel themselves to the NJSIAA North Jersey, Non-Public B finals.
The No. 6-seeded Lady Lions will face top-seeded Saddle River Day on Wednesday, March 11 at Passaic County Technical Institute. Tip-off is scheduled for 5pm.
It is the Immaculate program’s first ever appearance in the finals.
Immaculate won on the strength of a dominating first half, which left them up 42-21. That twenty-one point lead allowed them to withstand a second half collapse where MC out-scored ICHS 27-16.
The third quarter started off with both teams missing numerous shots, but the lid stayed on ICHS’ basket much longer, as the Crusaders slowly chipped away at the lead.
Immaculate also struggled with patience and ball-security, something which definitely frustrated head coach James Kreie. Too often the team seemed to rush a pass or a shot, which resulted in turnovers, which Morris Catholic turned into point.
“We’re learning how to be careful while still being efficient,” Kreie said after the game. “You know, at times we looked like we were trying to play “Hot Potato” and nobody wanted to handle the basketball. We need to be able to get them to handle the basketball under pressure a little bit better and still be aggressive while also being careful.”
Towards the end of the fourth quarter, Immaculate seemed to settle down, make some key shots and also sap the clock with ball movement.
Some of those key shots were made by Bukky Akinsola, who finished the game with a season high 21 points. In fact, a large reason Immaculate had the cushion they did to withstand the second half Morris Catholic surge was due to Akinsola.
The Crusaders worked hard to limit what senior leaders Nasira Williams and Azatah Lawrence could do to produce baskets. Lawrence scored a quick six points in the first quarter, then fell quiet until she scored five in the third quarter. Williams never got going, scoring two points early and then going scoreless until the fourth quarter when she dropped six free throws to ice the game.
However, with Lawrence and Williams going long stretches without finding the basket, other Lions had to step forward. Akinsola was one of them and her points total was the difference in winning and losing that game.
READ: IMMACULATE BEATS MARIST IN NJSIAA QUARTERS, 64-57
Of course, it wasn’t just her. Lawrence did finish with 11 points, Olivia Wooten had 10, and Tahirah Kelley’s 8 points were a huge addition to the big first half for Immaculate.
“We went with our mismatches. They had their center guarding one of the fastest kids in the county,” Kreie said referring to Akinsola. “So, we fed her and she produced. She hit threes, she drove, she hit her free throws. And then you know Tahirah and Olivia were going. Nas and Azatah took care of the basketball, and Nayiah [Witten] and Syd [Briscoe] came in and provided good minutes at the end.”
Lawrence once again proved herself dominant in the paint as well, gathering 10 rebounds and producing her second double-double in a row, and her fourth for the year.
Kreie said the muscle she provides the lineup with is a huge advantage for ICHS.
“She is the biggest mismatch in the state,” he said. “She’s strong enough to rebound with the six footers and she can step out and hit threes.”
The Lions usually use Lawrence as the “five” or center position and her strength often makes it difficult even for taller players to beat her at the glass.
“With Azatah being our five, she can rebound with the bigs and she can run our press. That’s why nobody’s been able to press us the entire year. She can do everything and she’s a vital part [of us].”
When Lawrence couldn’t get into the paint, Immaculate still dominated the boards and once again it was an example of how dangerous the Lions’ deep bench is as Briscoe and Kelley both accounted for five rebounds each, while Akinsola and Williams had three each.
While the loss to University in the Essex County Tournament finals hurt, the four-game win streak following it makes it clear that the Lions have continued to grow and improve after that game.
Kreie feels the continuing improvement, the ability to withstand everything teams throw at Immaculate, are all pay-offs from a tough schedule.
“We put together a very hard schedule so our record isn’t 24-0 like it could be,” he said. “But we didn’t want that, we wanted to make it far in the states. Do you know what I mean? We could have set up games with lesser opponents, but we wanted to play against the best in the state. So instead of being 24-0 we’re what? 21-8 right now? But this is where we wanted to be.”
Now they face a tough Saddle River Day team which is 22-3 this season, won the Bergen County Tournament and has out-scored their first two NJSIAA tournament opponents 146-55.
Immaculate clearly has the weapons to compete, but they cannot have a letdown like they did in the second half against Morris Catholic or the third quarter against Marist. They have to play hard all four quarters.
Kreie believes there’s nothing to stop them but themselves.
“We’re ready to go right now. If we play like we did in the first half everybody in the states is going to have a hard time.”
Check back after the game for results or follow us for live updates on Twitter Wednesday at @MtcLocalSports