The Montclair State women’s basketball team can finally catch their breath.
For 40 minutes, the Red Hawks fended off a style of play completely foreign to them. Westfield State University’s system is unending and fast paced: the Owls frequently subbed five players in and out, and they took over 80 shots and 30 threes on Friday. But, Montclair State pulled away with an 81-73 victory in the first round of the NCAA DIII Tournament and move on to face University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth in the next round.
“The first few minutes of the game, we were looking at each other like ‘whew, this is going to be a long one’,” senior guard Rachel Krauss said after the game. “It’s a different style of play that we haven’t seen before.”
Montclair State needed, and received, mammoth-sized efforts from multiple sources to overcome the Owls’ system. Krauss continued her scorching postseason run with 21 points on 70 percent shooting from three, and junior forward Katie Sire finished Friday tied for a game-high 23 points.
But that alone wasn’t enough to secure the victory.
Senior Zoe Curtis, the swiss-army knife of women’s basketball players, held the team together on both ends on the floor. Curtis delivered the Red Hawks’ first lead of the game with just 30 seconds left in the first half, and her usual grit and toughness was on display all night. Curtis is one of the few proverbial unsung heroes for Montclair State and, more often than not, she has helped the team win games through things that don’t appear in the box score.
This time, though, it showed in the stat sheet with 17 points, 15 rebounds and 4 steals. Curtis credited her teammates and coaches for her performance, but her teammates were quick to give her all the credit for Friday’s victory.
“Me and Kate [Tobie] were sitting on the bench in the last 30 seconds, and we were like ‘we wouldn’t have won today without Zoe [Curtis]’,” Sire said after the game. “Because of how she holds herself, how she keeps everyone together and then, on top of that, 17 points and 15 rebounds.”
Still, Curtis’s performance wasn’t enough to secure the victory. The Red Hawks needed more, and they received it from players on the fans’ periphery.
Freshman Cerys MacLelland stepped up in her first NCAA DIII Tournament and played key minutes for Montclair State, allowing junior Kate Tobie to catch her breath. MacLelland had the ball on a leash and didn’t commit one turnover against a Westfield State team that forces over 33 turnovers a game. Playing the point guard, MacLelland ran down the court and stuffed her opponent from behind and, if that wasn’t enough, she added four rebounds.
“I think I said a word to her on Tuesday that ‘hey, you might be playing in this game’ and she just kind of looked at me like ‘huh?'” Head Coach Karin Harvey said after the game. “It’s hard for the underclassmen on our team, we have strong upperclassmen who have been in this program for a long time. But I’m not surprised how she played, that’s why we played her. I thought she did an unbelievable job.”
MacLelland looked calm and collected in her first NCAA DIII Tournament appearance, and fellow freshman Alex McKinnon mirrored MacLelland’s poise. The pair of freshmen looked unnerved by the moment.
That may have been enough to put the Red Hawks over the top, but Montclair State asserted their control over the game with a series of adjustments. Westfield State senior guard Jill Valley opened with 14 points in the first quarter, but the Red Hawks threw a few more traps and double teams at Valley to slow her down. It worked: Valley didn’t score in the second quarter and shot 25 percent from the field for the rest of the game.
The players, too, had a hand in the team’s adjustments.
“Erica [Snow] was drawing on the board during halftime and helped us with our offense a little bit,” Harvey said. “They make adjustments mid-game, and they help each other.”
It wasn’t just halftime where a player took control of the dry-erase board. During the game, Snow was called over, sat next to the coaches and drew something out on the board. During a timeout, Curtis handled the board as well. There’s a lot of give and take between the coaches and players when it comes to strategy, and the players have built a trust factor with Harvey to a point where they are calling the shots at times. It’s not anarchy, rather, it’s the result of years of experience and a unique culture.
And, on Friday, that culture won.
Now, the Red Hawks face a quick turnaround and play University of Massachusetts-Amherst at 5 p.m. at Panzer on Saturday – just 20 hours after Friday’s fast and frenzied game. So how is Montclair State going to respond to the short rest?
“[The players] are going to drink some milk and drink some water, and try to get some rest,” Harvey said. “And, you know, we’ll go out and we’ll come up with a gameplan and we’ll go out and give it our best for 40 minutes. I guarantee that.”
Montclair State’s season ended in heartbreak last year after losing to Albright College in overtime in the same spot. Now, after returning nearly the entire roster and playing with each other for a full year, Montclair State will have a chance to go one round further with a win against University of Massachusetts-Amherst on Saturday.