Resiliency has been shown all season long for the Montclair State University men’s basketball team.
Throughout the season, players like freshman guard Mike Jackson, graduate student/forward Irving Callender IV and senior forward Steven Breeman have proven they can elevate their level of play in late-game situations.
Even when the game looks out of reach, this group can make game-changing plays when it matters the most. They did it against tough conference opponents such as Rowan University and Rutgers-Newark, and they’ll look to continue that philosophy once the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) tournament begins this weekend.
Head coach Justin Potts spoke on how strong this team is when it matters most.
“We tell our guys our season is often decided by five points or less in a game,” Potts said. “They paid attention to that, and as a result, execute in tight situations.”
The team proved that perseverance pays off this past weekend as the Red Hawks defeated the New Jersey City University (NJCU) Gothic Knights in a thrilling 62-59 finish. The Red Hawks were without two of their starters, junior guard Keyon Pryce and Callender IV, due to injury on senior day. The Red Hawks had some dysfunctional moments in the game without their production.
Defense for the Red Hawks was a problem early on in that game, and it left many wondering how Callender IV could have impacted that side of the ball. Recently recording a season-high seven steals against Ramapo College on Jan. 26, the team could have used his off-ball activity to create more chances on the fastbreak.
His tenacity on defense can prove to be the key to championship success this season once he returns. Callender IV spoke on how crucial that is for the Red Hawks.
“The coaching staff emphasizes defense,” Callender IV said. “The team, including myself, look to get physical and guard up close, which we have done better the last stretch of the season.”
Though late-game stops were just enough, the team had miscues elsewhere. Turnovers were proving to be costly for the team and it has been like that all season long. The Red Hawks average 15.6 turnovers per game, but this past weekend the team combined for 19 of those giveaways.
Though Potts celebrated his 100th career victory on Saturday, the turnovers still crept into his mind. If the team wants to make a deep push, they must limit the mishandling on offense.
“We’re trying to win the turnover margin night in and night out,” Potts said. “We’ve had moments where we haven’t taken care of the ball like this past game and teams ranked higher in the standings … but the win proved how connected we are.”
Although the Red Hawks were nearing their fifth loss at home this season, the heroics of Breeman and Jackson proved to be the connection this team needed in the second half. Jackson finished with 23 points, along with three crucial free throws in the game’s final minute.
Not only did Jackson show he can shoot the lights out of the Panzer Athletic Center, but he also gave Red Hawk fans the hope that he can be their primary offensive weapon come playoff time.
“I’m a proven shooter and coach is going to let me take as many shots,” Jackson said. “I had to step up to the plate today and hit big shots for the win.”
The freshman has shown he’s capable of scoring when needed. The challenge for Jackson remains if he can provide that same productivity in the more meaningful playoff scenarios. The spacing Jackson provides could lead to more drives for known slashers like Callender IV and Breeman.
Since returning to the lineup on Jan. 22 after a bout with the coronavirus (COVID-19), Breeman has slowly returned to form after having his minutes limited. He seems to be catching fire at the right time, and he couldn’t have done it at a better time. He portrayed a masterful performance against the Gothic Knights, recording a double-double with 18 points and 14 rebounds.
Breeman expressed how he has played recently compared to early on in the season.
“I was trying to get back in the flow of my game, but I was thinking too much out there,” Breeman said. “I was hurting my team, but we stuck together. Once we all get on the same page, we’ve proven we’re hard to beat.”
Breeman, who is one of the vocal leaders for the Red Hawks, has been continuously reminding his teammates of how important they are to the group and to remain focused each game. He also reminds them he wants the ball in late situations like against the NJCU Gothic Knights, hitting a go-ahead three-point shot in the final two minutes of the game.
Although the group is aware of its flaws, there’s no denying this team will continue pushing until the final horn. Injuries, lack of defensive production and scoring struggles won’t derail this team from making miracles happen.
The Red Hawks look to finish the regular season with a win this Wednesday against Rowan. With a win, the Red Hawks will most likely clinch the fourth seed in the tournament and earn a first-round bye.