The Red Hawks earned a first-round bye in the NJAC Tournament with their 59-53 victory over Stockton University on Feb. 17. Montclair State closed out the regular season on an eight-game winning streak — their longest of the season.
The beginning of the season was marked by a dominant four-game winning streak, then the Red Hawks suffered a disappointing loss to Moravian College. Montclair State rebounded from their loss with another four consecutive victories and were set to face their first true test of the season in the San Juan Shootout. However, Kayla Ceballos suffered a season-ending ACL injury and the Red Hawks’ season was in jeopardy.
After alternating wins and losses over the course of seven games, the Red Hawks put together back-to-back wins against Rutgers-Newark and Ramapo College. Montclair State hasn’t lost a single game since that point and are riding their most impressive stretch of the season heading into the NJAC Tournament.
The women’s basketball team entered their game against Stockton University in a three-way tie for first place in the NJAC. Both teams had a first-round bye to play for, but Montclair State came out to play like their season was on the line.
The Red Hawks set the court ablaze and outscored the Ospreys 20-4 in the opening quarter. Montclair State utilized their press — which was one of their most effective tools in the beginning of the season —and forced Stockton University into a multitude of mistakes. Stockton University turned the ball over six times and couldn’t get anything going in that face of the Red Hawks’ defiant defense.
“Our press did a great job,” said Associate Head Coach Courtney Cunningham. “We were sharp today and we had our rotations down. We communicated and I thought it did a really good job for us.”
On the other end, it seemed like Montclair State could do no wrong. The Red Hawks nailed four 3-pointers and the ball moved seamlessly around the perimeter. When they weren’t hitting 3-pointers, the women’s basketball team was penetrating the paint and hitting layups with ease.
The Red Hawks couldn’t parlay their dominant first quarter into a game-breaking second quarter. Their offense came to a screeching halt as they only shot 11.8 percent from the field. Montclair State’s defense let up as well, but they were still able to take a 26-15 heading to halftime.
The second half was a back-and-forth contest, but Stockton University could never take the lead. Despite only shooting 33 percent from the field in the third quarter, the Red Hawks were able to come up with offensive rebounds time and time again.
“Our offensive boards were huge,” Cunningham said after the game. “Sage [Bennett] and Zoey [Curtis] had five. We did a phenomenal job. We made it a focus and they really did a good job.”
The Red Hawks’ effort on the offensive boards led to 15 second-chance points. The Ospreys cut the lead down to 6 points in the fourth quarter but Montclair State ultimately prevailed and secured the victory.
Sophomore Katie Sire stuffed the stat-sheet with 18 points, 12 rebounds, two blocks and two steals. Junior Zoey Curtis contributed 13 points and seven rebounds. Sophomore Kate Tobie acted as a floor general and defensive stopper by providing 6 points, eight assists and four steals.
“I thought we played amazing,” Head Coach Karin Harvey said after the game. “We stuck to the game plan, our post players did a tremendous job, our guards helped, and we kept pushing the ball. It’s the best team win we could have possibly had.”
The Red Hawks are playing their best basketball heading into the NJAC Tournament. Their offense sometimes slows down and becomes inefficient, like it did in the second quarter against Stockton University, but it is much more fluid than it was at the beginning of the season. Montclair State’s set plays didn’t create much in their first few games, but now every play is run with a purpose and the ball moves more freely on offense.
The women’s basketball team will need to combine their 3-point shooting with staunch defense if they want to make a serious run in the NJAC Tournament. Every 3-pointer clearly energizes the team and it’s saved them on multiple occasions when games hung in the balance. On the whole, however, Montclair State is in a much better position than they were just a month ago.
The Red Hawks’ next game will be the semifinals of the NJAC Tournament and will be hosted at Panzer Athletic Center on Feb. 23. Montclair State will play the winner of William Paterson University and Kean University.