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After hundreds of unseen practices, after two years of playing together as a starting unit, after scrapping their way to numerous tournament victories, Montclair State’s women’s basketball team managed to pull off one more victory and captured their fifth-consecutive New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) title against Rutgers-Newark on Saturday. The victory wasn’t easy. The victory wasn’t quick. It was, though, the result of a culture that has been building since the team’s seniors were freshmen.
Coming into the 2016-17 regular season, the Red Hawks returned all of their starters and nearly the entire roster. That’s an oddity in sports in general, but even more so at the college level. The starters – seniors Sage Bennett, Zoe Curtis, Rachel Krauss and juniors Kate Tobie and Katie Sire – learned how to play together last season and developed an intangible level of trust, a factor which helped the Red Hawks pull away late on Saturday.
“We all have faith in each other,” senior guard Zoe Curtis said. “We know the ins and outs of how each of us play, and we know what we can do to pick each other up. If someone is having an off day, we try and get them right back on their feet. We know how to encourage them. We know the right things to say to them. And even if they’re having a down day, they can figure out how to get out of the hole. I feel like it is trust, but we also know each other that well, and we’ve been around each other for so long that it’s just there, we click.”
Rutgers-Newark had life going into the fourth quarter. The Scarlet Raiders, who carved their way to the NJAC Finals by upsetting the tournament’s third and second seeds, scrapped their way throughout the first three quarters and refused to let the Red Hawks pull ahead. They were tied with Montclair State – the team everyone in the NJAC wants to knock off – in the first minute of the fourth quarter, and were nine minutes away from pulling off their third upset in the tournament.
Then, Montclair State’s starters came through.
Bennett weaved her way into the lane and hit a layup to put the Red Hawks up two. Krauss, who hadn’t hit a three since the first quarter, stepped up and hit a three and Montclair State was up five. Then, Krauss nailed another three. Sire followed with a three of her own on the next trip down the court. Like clockwork, each of the starters fed off each other and, all of the sudden, the Red Hawks blew open an 11-point lead with less than five minutes to go in the NJAC Finals.
The life had been sucked out of Rutgers-Newark, and the game was all but finished. Scarlet Raider sophomore guard Faith Ashby, who delivered a determined 26-point performance, missed a free throw with under three minutes left and smacked the ball to the ground in equal parts frustration and resignation.
There were tangible reasons why Montclair State won. The Red Hawks had 19 more rebounds than Rutgers-Newark. The Red Hawks hit eight threes, and their defense locked into place in the fourth quarter. But Montclair State’s experience proved to be too much. The Red Hawks found a way to win yet another game and, once again, their faith and trust in each other was rewarded.
“If you look at how much experience this group has, these juniors and seniors, it’s unbelievable,” Head Coach Karin Harvey said after the game. “They’ve grown, they’ve matured and they get it. They call their own defenses, they call their own out of bounds plays. Like Zoe said, they know each other, inside and out. They know what it takes.”
During the post-game press conference, Bennett, Curtis, Krauss, Sire and Harvey looked less like four players and their coach and more like just five friends talking about the game. But the team’s chemistry, as it stands today, wasn’t there since day one.
After Kayla Ceballos’s season-ending injury last year, the Red Hawks struggled and traded wins and losses over the course of the next six games. But, slowly, the women’s basketball team trudged through games together, banded together and usually seemed to come out on top. A starting five was locked into place, and Bennett, Curtis, Krauss, Sire and Tobie carried their momentum into this season.
It’s not something that always shows up in the final score, but the team’s faith and trust is constantly expressed on the bench. Rutgers-Newark immediately called a timeout after Krauss hit her first three of the fourth quarter on Saturday and Curtis went straight to the bench, pumped up and clapping, and encouraged her teammates to keep the momentum going. Or it’s the trust factor between Harvey and her players in the biggest game of the season.
“They trust me, at least I think they do,” Harvey said with a smile. “They trust me and they buy in 100 percent and they don’t question what’s going on. And it’s cooperative. Like at halftime, I asked them, ‘what defense do you want to play?’ I wanted to press a little bit to start the second half, and my point guards said no. And I said okay, but we have to a little bit, and then she’s like alright, a little bit, on dead balls. But that’s how we do it in our program.”
On different nights – and even in different quarters – one starter is ready to carry the team. In the first half against Rutgers-Newark, it was Tobie. Krauss and Sire started off slow, but Tobie was blocking shots on one end and slinging wizard-like passes to her teammates on the other end. And, throughout the game, Bennett sunk multiple big shots and held the team together.
Each of Montclair State’s current starters had a hand in the team’s Final Four run when they were underclassmen, and now they are forging a run as upperclassmen. They earned their fifth-consecutive NJAC title, and now it’s time for the NCAA Tournament.
“This night stands out, because this one of the last times I’m going to be with these guys, and that’s really sad for me,” Sire said after the game. “Losing these three, and knowing that it’s coming down to our last couple games with them, kind of hurts a little. I think, if anything, we wanted to play tonight for them.”