by Andrew Garda
While its record seems to indicate Montclair High School’s boys basketball team is struggling, the reality is that its 2-5 (2-5 Super Essex Conference) mark could look much different.
Yes, the Mounties do have those losses, but they’ve been in every game, and lost four of those five games by a total of just 12 points. Even the loss to East Orange — a 64-52 decision on Jan. 30 — was one where MHS was in the game for much of it.
“We’ve had a lot of self-induced losses,” head coach Gary Wallace said. “I will say that two games we were up with less than 25 seconds left and we turned it over because we couldn’t get the ball inbounds.”
A loss is a loss to Wallace. But when it’s a tight one, he said, you know it’s a matter of tweaking a little here and there.
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“[It’s] just basic things that we go over every day and practice,” he said. “We’re just not taking care of the basketball.”
The Mounties have allowed 49 steals in their losses, including an eye-popping 18 during their 64-61 loss to West Side on Jan. 28.
That game was one of those that came down to the wire, and had Montclair kept better care of the ball, it easily could have gone their way, according to Wallace.
“You can’t give [that to] teams like West Side,” he said.
The Feb. 9 loss to Newark Central was another game that got away, Wallace said.
The Mounties fell behind 19-9 in the first quarter, but came roaring back with a 25-point second quarter to take a 34-33 lead. Both teams struggled to score in the third quarter, but Central was able to take a 43-42 lead. Then Montclair tied the game late to send it into overtime.
“We were up in overtime with seven seconds left, up by 1, and we can’t get the ball inbounds, and we turn it over,” Wallace recalled. “We throw it away under our own basket. They got the ball and scored a layup at the buzzer.”
It was a tough defeat, he said, because the Mounties felt like they gave the game away.
“We were down 10 in that game, you know, we fought back and played hard to get back in,” he said. “We just made some mental errors.”
Fixing those errors is of paramount importance for a team trying to learn how to remain poised and finish late in close games.
When they figure that out, Wallace said the benefits will pay out next year as well as this one.
While he wants to focus on the season in front of them, Wallace is cognizant that he has a very young team.
Many of his top scorers are underclassmen, so they will be back next year, when they will be able to use the experience of these close losses to improve.
Elijah Beek (30 points in the first seven games), Shahaad Sutton (39) and Collin Gibson (21) are all juniors.
Add in the unique circumstance of the pandemic, and you have a situation that is as much about development as it is winning in 2021.
“I think it’s going to be huge if they can understand, you know, what’s expected of them now and how to deal with adversity,” Wallace said.
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Ultimately, success both for this year and next will be about learning to finish.
“Our patience is getting better,” he said. “ And it’s just all those things that we keep preaching, keep drilling. Guys are starting to listen and execute. So, we should be able to continue to grow and get better from here and, you know, go through this league again and pick up all those games that we gave up.”
After a 45-38 win over West Orange on Feb. 11, Montclair began a six-day layoff before facing West Side on the road on Wednesday, Feb. 17 (results after press time), and Wallace has spent that time working on fine-tuning the team.
He feels that the Mounties are close to putting it together and if they do that, Montclair can put itself in a good position for postseason play if the NJSIAA goes through with its plans for an abbreviated playoffs.
“We’re going to be fine,” Wallace said. “I’m excited, they’re excited. They have a bounce in their step. They’re communicating, but sometimes they need to over-communicate.”