While it’s not quite David vs. Goliath, the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) Finals features a matchup between a finals stranger and a conference titan. Rutgers-Newark has gone on the road and upset third-seeded Stockton University and second-seeded Kean University, and now the Scarlet Raiders find themselves in their first NJAC Final in five years. For the Red Hawks, though, it’s just a different year with a different opponent.
Montclair State’s women’s basketball team will be looking to capture its fifth-consecutive NJAC title on Saturday after claiming a semifinals victory on Wednesday. The Red Hawks enter Saturday’s game on a six-game winning streak and in the middle of one of their best shooting stretches of the season.
So how are the Red Hawks going to prepare for the biggest game of their season?
“I’m going to get up at 4:30 a.m and do the scout tomorrow morning the same way I would whether we’re playing Jersey City or TCNJ or Rutgers-Newark,” Head Coach Karin Harvey said after Wednesday’s victory. “We’re going to look at is as we’re playing [Rutgers]-Newark. They’re going to come at us. They’re trying to make a really great run here, just picking teams off.”
The seniors and juniors on the women’s basketball team have already appeared in more NJAC Finals than Rutgers-Newark has since 2002. There’s an enormous experience gap between the two teams, but it’s not something the Red Hawks say they are taking for granted.
“Every single team is coming out and they’re going to play their hardest against us,” senior guard Rachel Krauss said. “Everyone wants to beat us and we’ve won [the NJAC title] four years in a row […] just because they’re the sixth seed in the championship doesn’t mean anything. It’s just another game. Yes it’s a championship game, but they’re going to be ready and so are we.”
The Scarlet Raiders aren’t statistical juggernauts, but they’re a different team than years past. Rutgers-Newark senior guard Maria Simmons was named to the NJAC’s first team and averages 18.6 points, 5.7 assists and 3.1 steals per game – all three numbers good for second-best in the NJAC. After transferring from Montclair State – a move which Harvey helped facilitate – sophomore guard Faith Ashby comes back to Panzer Athletic Center averaging 15.7 points and 2.2 rebounds per game.
While Rutgers-Newark has hit momentous shots in key moments throughout the NJAC tournament, Saturday’s game won’t be an unfamiliar situation to Montclair State. It will be the same stakes, same Panzer Athletic Center but a different opponent.
Speaking on the lead-up to Wednesday’s game, junior forward Katie Sire explained how the team’s experience has helped them come tournament time.
“We kept seeing people and friends on campus and they asked ‘oh my god, are you ready for tonight?'” Sire said. “And we were just like, ‘yeah, of course we’re ready for tonight.’ Our focus has kind of changed. For other teams a lot of times it’s playoff game or the last game of the season, and for us we’re more just concerned about the opponent that we’re playing. That comes with experience. I think it helps that we’ve been there so many times, and we don’t look at it as an NJAC championship. We look at it as Rutgers-Newark.”
Montclair State will take on Rutgers-Newark in the NJAC Finals on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Panzer Athletic Center.