After dominating non-conference opponents at the beginning of the season, like Brooklyn College and the University of Valley Forge, the Montclair State University men’s basketball team went to face New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) opponents in five straight games. The Red Hawks could only find a victory in one of those games and went into a three-game losing streak.
With a losing record going into the winter break, things looked a little rocky for a team that got robbed of a championship opportunity last season due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. But after a phenomenal game against Misericordia University a month ago, with senior forward Steve Breeman scoring over 20 points, Montclair State seems to be finding their footing in the second half of the season.
Senior guard Devin Cooper talks about what has been going right recently for the Red Hawks, and to him, it all starts with one’s work ethic at practice in the Panzer Athletic Center.
“One thing we all have been harping on as a team and as a coaching staff is going hard at practice,” Cooper said. “Whether it is a live segment or any drill we do at practice, we go a lot harder and treat everything like a real game situation. And [with] the way we play against each other at practice, that competitive nature translates to the games and helps us a lot.”
This concept was clear in Montclair State’s recent three-game winning streak, one of those games being a forfeit from Rutgers-Camden due to COVID-19 protocols. Both games against top NJAC schools such as Rutgers-Newark and Rowan University were close, but the Red Hawks fought until the very end, winning both games 62-59 and 74-73 respectively. In their contest against Rutgers-Newark, Cooper and Breeman combined for more than half of the team’s points.
In the game against Rowan, bodies were flying and questionable calls were being made by the referees, causing a lot of noise from the Panzer bleachers. Graduate student forward Irving Callender IV shot perfectly from beyond the arc and scored two free throws in the final seconds of the game to seal the victory.
Breeman spoke about the importance of having Callender IV on the team and how he has led the Red Hawks through the trials and tribulations they have faced.
“[Callender IV] is great,” Breeman said. “He does so much for our team on both sides of the ball; he’s a good all-around player, and all of the younger guys look up to him as a role model.”
Another added factor that has recently come into play this season is the appearance of the omicron variant, which has caused a huge spike in cases and has added caution for all events, especially basketball games. The Red Hawks were supposed to travel down to Maryland for a tournament hosted by Johns Hopkins University a few days after Christmas, but due to COVID-19 concerns, it was called off.
Head coach Justin Potts has accepted the reality of the situation and plans to play through the cancellations and postponements with whatever it takes.
“The training staff has done a remarkable job, and these guys have done a great job of staying safe,” Potts said. “I think the reality of college basketball this year is that we are all going to go through it at some point, and as we go through the rest of the season, I am sure we won’t go unscathed. You hope that it doesn’t happen but you have to be prepared.”
Even with the current situation going on in the world and at Montclair State, the Red Hawks are still fighting for another chance to give some damage in the NJAC playoffs. Last season, they were ready to face New Jersey City University (NJCU) in the semifinals, but due to COVID-19 protocols, the game was called off and NJCU advanced to the championship where they would inevitably beat Stockton University and win the conference.
However, Montclair State got their chance to finally face the Gothic Knights on Saturday afternoon, and it was yet another close game for the Red Hawks, with sophomore guard Amari Mills shining once again with 17 points, and with Breeman not playing, the winning streak ended with a three-point loss. Callender IV spoke on a couple of things the Red Hawks wanted to accomplish in the conference matchup.
“Our main thing is to rebound the ball since NJCU is a great rebounding team,” Callender IV said. “If we control the backboard and hit our open shots, the game should come right to us.”
While the result was not what Montclair State wanted (66-69), they did accomplish what Callender IV wanted: the team notched 44 rebounds over the Gothic Knights’ 36 rebounds.
With the team now at a winning record (7-6) and heading into all-conference matchups for the rest of the season, they have a clear vision of what they need to do to succeed, according to Potts: the Red Hawks must stay true to who Montclair State is, and form an identity together so they can continue to get better.