by Andrew Garda
WAYNE—Immaculate Conception High School girls basketball coach Jason Kreie walked off the court unsatisfied last Wednesday, March 11, after his Lions were defeated by top-seeded Saddle River Day, 66-50, in the NJSIAA North Jersey, Non-Public B championship game.
“We didn’t get our threes,” Kreie said. “We were here to win. Nobody remembers second place.”
The Lions (21-9) held a two-point lead at halftime, and led by five early in the third quarter, only to see Saddle River control the second half, limiting IC to just 15 points.
It was a disappointing end to arguably the best season in program history, with Immaculate advancing to the Essex County Tournament final for the second straight year, and reaching the state sectional final for the first time ever.
“Will be back next year. We’ll be bigger, we’ll be stronger,” he said.
ICHS will have to do it without veteran seniors like Nasira Williams, who led all scorers against Saddle River with 19 points, and Azatah Lawrence, who had 11 points and 7 rebounds, as well as Jailyn Lucas and Kendra Lawrence.
But Kreie noted that this class of seniors has left an enormous mark on the school and the program, and that legacy will outlive their physical presence at the school.
“They stayed,” he said. “I told them downstairs that St. John Vianney was built 30 years ago. Saddle River Day, it’s been a decade now. Saint Rose, 25 years ago. And now there’s a lot of kids that want to join [those teams] because of the kids 25 years ago. They’re these kids now. They’re why people are going to come to IC, because Nas and Azatah were here.
“That speaks more than being able to put a basketball through the rim. They were the cornerstones of what’s about to come for the next 10 years against the state. They built this. The kids [playing] now didn’t build St. John Vianney. They’re continuing it. And I think to build something and be the originator, t’s just a different type of [success].”
Immaculate, the sixth seed in the bracket, reached the county title game after impressive wins over strong Marist and Morris Catholic teams.
Things were much tougher from the outset against Saddle River Day, champions of the Bergen County Tournament.
The Rebels (23-3) scored the game’s first 10 points, and withstood an 11-2 Immaculate run to maintain a seven-point lead, 22-15, at the end of the first quarter.
Yet the Lions would not go quietly and opened up the second quarter with three baskets in a row to draw the score to 22-21. Saddle River responded with five consecutive points, but Immaculate took control of the game with back-to-back-to-back 3-pointers by Williams, giving the Lions a 30-27 lead late in the first half.
Lawrence would put IC ahead 35-33 with a pair of free throws just before halftime.
Williams and Bukky Akinsola combined for a quick seven points to extend the Lion lead to 42-37, but that would be Immaculate’s high-water mark.
Saddle River scored eight straight points to take a 45-42 lead, with ICHS missing numerous shots and turning the ball over several times. Immaculate would score only one more time — another Akinsola basket — in the third quarter, but trailed only by four, 48-44.
But the Lions remained out of rhythm, and were outscored 18-6 in the fourth quarter as Saddle River put teh game away.
In addition to the scoring load of Williams, Lawrence and Akinsola (12 points), the Lions received good minutes from Olivia Wooten, Tahirah Kelley and Sidney Briscoe.
Kreie knows that can be tough for a senior — a high school student — to appreciate right after a loss like the one Immaculate had just sustained and that’s why he appreciates what his seniors did in just sticking with the program.
“Sometimes you don’t get to see the fruits of your labor, but it is impressive when kids are like “I’m going to commit the four years. I’m here. I’m going to walk away and at least it’s going to be better than when I was here or when I first came here.”
The Lions won’t easily replace any of their seniors, but Kreie said the program will always remember them going forward.
“There’s never going to be another 5, 44 or 15 here ever again,” he said. “But we’re going to win it because of them. We’ll be back because of them.”