After being away from the beautiful campus of Montclair State University for over a month, it’s easy to miss the crowd in the Panzer Athletic Center roaring for their Red Hawks, the primetime shots from deep and the contact baskets leading to an additional free throw.
Saturday’s New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) matchup for the Montclair State men’s basketball team against The College Of New Jersey (TCNJ) brought all of that into perspective and for good reason.
Going into the matchup, it’s hard to forget what happened in the last game down in Ewing, New Jersey. In a double-overtime thriller, senior guard Devin Cooper and graduate student/forward Irving Callender IV combined for 50 points in the game. But unfortunately, it was all about TCNJ’s Anthony DiCaro and the performance he put on, dropping 37 points in a 88-87 victory on Dec. 4.
It was just enough to edge out the Red Hawks, but Montclair State was definitely looking for revenge. And they got it, defeating the Lions 71-53 in a blowout on Saturday.
The College of New Jersey had a grasp on the game for about a minute and a half in the first half until Montclair State picked it up and switched the momentum. Senior forward Steve Breeman, who luckily came back from a two-game absence due to COVID-19 protocols, talked about what helped them stay in control.
“We did a great job on defense,” Breeman said. “We locked our guys down, we rebounded the ball really well and it was a really good collective team effort. And as long as we continue to get better, the sky is the limit for us.”
Even in an enclosed arena, the sky was definitely the limit for the Red Hawks, especially early on in this game, thanks in part to aggressive post play from sophomore forward Francisco Paulino, who has proved this season that he can be a cornerstone for Montclair State on both sides of the ball.
“He’s very physical and he’s as strong as oxen,” Breeman said. “He works hard at practice every day and in the games, you can see that his hard work pays off. I’m so happy for him and I hope he continues to play as he has been.”
But who else could be the player of the game, or even the whole day of basketball action, other than the freshman guard out of enemy territory in Jersey City, Mike Jackson? Some might do a double-take and think of the legendary pop singer, but the Red Hawks’ Mike Jackson put on a show against TCNJ, scoring 18 points, five rebounds and four steals.
“It was a wonderful feeling hearing all of the fans in Panzer and seeing us play our game and the ball going into the net,” Jackson said. “[Going into the second half] coach [Justin] Potts told us to play with love and have that mental mindset of playing together in the game that we love.”
And in what looked like night and day for star player DiCaro for TCNJ, Saturday was not his day. He only scored six points and committed four turnovers during the game.
“We wanted to beat him with the screens; he’s going to look for his shot [so] we have to close out all of them,” Jackson said.
Another part of what helped the Red Hawks to fluster DiCaro was the ever-popular full-court press. At this point, it may sound redundant to talk about, but that type of court spacing is head coach Justin Potts’ specialty, and in this game, it worked astoundingly well.
“We made some adjustments at practice and the guys are really starting to understand what kind of pressure it is,” Potts said. “So now we are able to take the guy off of the ball and do some different things that we weren’t able to do earlier in the year. Players like Kieran Flanagan and Amari Mills were spectacular on defense today and made the press work the way it did.”
The Red Hawks’ victory propelled them into fifth place in the conference.
With the NJAC Playoffs now allowing all 10 teams into the playoffs, staying within the top six will be key so that the Red Hawks can obtain a bye for the first round of games.