This was expected to be a big season for the Montclair Kimberley girls basketball team, but the wrath of COVID, along with weather cancellations, has caused the Cougars to struggle on the floor.
Unfortunately, with this pandemic and being shut down for two weeks, we didn’t and don’t get much practice time,” head coach Ilirjana Lulgjuraj said. “Our games are not only games, but [they are] our practices.”A shorter preseason and fewer practices mean that each game is both a contest and preparation for the next game.
Nevertheless, the Cougars have gotten better as the season has gone along, even though they’ve only put one victory in the ledger after eight contests.
“We have been improving each game we play,” Lulgjuraj said. “We have improved by the game, making adjustments where needed.”
On Feb. 25, MKA played its best game of the season to that point, coming close to defeating Millburn at home. Ultimately, the Cougars lost 46-43 after MKA took a 19-17 lead into halftime. They turned that around March 1 with a 44-41 win at Millburn — their first of the season.
While Montclair Kimberley had balanced scoring in the Feb. 25 game, it was Millburn’s Rachel Lutsky who brought the Cougars’ close to what could easily have instead been their first victory. Lutsky had a game-high 28 points.
Senior Vanessa Amsinger and junior Patricia Columbia-Walsh led the way in giving MKA a shot at winning the game. Amsinger had a team-high 17 points, while Columbia-Walsh added 15.
In addition, it was the Cougars’ work on the boards that gave them a great shot for the win. Amsinger registered a double-double, with 13 rebounds.
“It was the first game where we outrebounded our opponent, which tremendously helped us,” Lulgjuraj said. “Rebounding has been something we struggled with the first few games. We are improving that, and it shows in our play and score.”
Along with Amsinger, a pair of freshmen, Salange Bell and Maria Caggiano, helped control the boards, with eight and seven rebounds respectively.
But it was MKA’s turnovers because of Millburn’s full-court and half-court pressure that did in the Cougars.
Montclair Kimberley just ran out of time in the final seconds.
The Cougars were down 45-40 with 19 seconds left when Columbia-Walsh hit the second of her two threes with nine seconds remaining.
Down by two, 45-43, MKA was forced to foul, and unfortunately fouled Lutsky, who hit one of two free throws with 3.8 seconds left in the game.
The Cougars could not respond.
MKA’s offense sputtered at the start of the game, leaving the Cougars down 8-2 after the first few minutes.
But behind Columbia-Walsh’s offense, especially in the second quarter, MKA caught Millburn and took the lead, 14-11, with four minutes remaining the first half.
After a Columbia-Walsh three-point bucket MKA had a 19-13 lead with a little more than one minute left in the half. But Millburn cut that down to two, 19-17, by halftime.
Columbia-Walsh scored 10 of her 15 points in the second quarter. “I love that Patricia is an all-around player,” Lulgjuraj said. “She really knows how to get the job done. Defensively and offensively, Patricia brings a great explosive energy that can change the course of the game at any moment.”
In the second half, the Cougars were playing catch-up after Millburn passed them in the first three minutes of the third quarter.
Before the defeat to Millburn, MKA provided another example of how it was improving, in a 46-36 loss at Glen Ridge on Feb. 23.
The Cougars outscored Glen Ridge in the second half. And it was another big game for Amsinger, who added another double-double, with a dozen points and 13 rebounds. Caggiano kicked in nine points while junior Ayantu Flowers and Columbia-Walsh added seven each.