Women’s Basketball Is Back to Championship Contention

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Published March 30, 2020
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The Montclarion
Freshman guard Nickie Carter and her fellow teammates congratulate McKinnon after she scored her 1,000th career point with the Red Hawks. Chris Krusberg | The Montclarion

After a disappointing 2018-2019 season, the Montclair State University women’s basketball team was back in a familiar position. After finishing with the second-best record in the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC), the Red Hawks would secure a spot in the conference title game with a semifinal victory over New Jersey City University on Feb. 25.

This run was shocking to many, as the Red Hawks started off the season at just 5-4 and looked like they were not meeting the high expectations that critics had set for them before their season began.

However, the winter break provided just the spark the team needed. The Red Hawks would win 16 of their next 17 games, putting their overall record at 21-5 and 15-3 in their conference, heading into the NJAC championship. Additionally, the team was ranked fourth in the NCAA Atlantic Region rankings.

Just when things could not have gotten any better for the Red Hawks, the amazing, inspiring run that carried them deep into the season came crashing down. The Red Hawks lost the NJAC championship game against Rowan University in a heartbreaking 64-54 defeat that saw the Red Hawks score only 10 points in the final 15 minutes of the game.

Chris Krusberg | The Montclarion

Senior guard Cerys MacLelland finds an open lane to the hoop.
Chris Krusberg | The Montclarion

Despite many critics writing off the Red Hawks’ chances of receiving a bid, Montclair State would earn an at-large bid into the NCAA Division III national tournament, their ninth appearance. A daunting task laid ahead, as the Red Hawks traveled to Marymount University to face the George Fox University Bruins, who were seen by many to be contenders to reach the Final Four.

The Bruins flexed their offensive prowess on a Montclair State defense that allowed them to shoot over 57% from three-point range en route to a 74-49 blowout victory against the Red Hawks.

Just like that, it was over. After building up one of the most impressive winning streaks in the head coach Karin Harvey era, the Red Hawks season ended in disappointing fashion.

Does this mean that the entire season was a disappointment? Certainly not.

Chris Krusberg | The Montclarion

Freshman guard Nickie Carter soars to the basket.
Chris Krusberg | The Montclarion

The Red Hawks not only met expectations, the team surpassed them. Nobody expected the Red Hawks to pull together 11 straight wins at any point during the season. Nobody expected freshman guard Nickie Carter to be one of the best young stars in Division III basketball. Most of all, nobody expected this team to compete for a title after their sluggish start.

For comparison, the team averaged only 60.7 points before Montclair State’s annual holiday tournament. Since then, the team averaged nearly 69 points per game. The Red Hawks struggled with offensive consistency, dating back to the 2018-2019 season, however, that all changed with this run.

Much of that has to do with the rise of Carter, who really embraced the role of being this team’s star player. She averaged 17 points per game this season and was simply the Red Hawks go-to weapon on most offensive possessions. Her scoring opened up opportunities for players like senior forward Alex McKinnon and junior guard Taylor Brown; both players averaged more than 10 points per game.

Chris Krusberg | The Montclarion

Red Hawks embrace senior forward Alex McKinnon after she scored her 1,000th point.
Chris Krusberg | The Montclarion

With McKinnon and defensive stalwart Cerys MacLelland graduating, there are some big shoes to fill for the team to find success next season. However, in the last several years under coach Harvey, the program has always retooled and never rebuilt. There will likely be players who can step up their game. Offensively speaking, the team should continue to grow with Carter and Brown returning, as well as junior forward Kayla Bush, who showed massive improvement this season.

Chris Krusberg | The Montclarion

Senior guard Cerys MacLelland shoots a layup as the shot clock expires.
Chris Krusberg | The Montclarion

Not to mention, sophomore guard Julia Sutton will be back next year, as her season ended on the second game of the year. After a strong freshman campaign, Sutton was dearly missed on the court this season as she provided the team with much-needed depth.

For those who might be upset about the Red Hawks finishing the season on a low note, it is worth noting that the Red Hawks at least got to finish their season on their terms. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken that opportunity away from many teams, including the George Fox University Bruins.

Instead, we should marvel at the 2019-2020 Montclair State women’s basketball team for overcoming a disappointing season last year and a sluggish start this season. They not only made themselves proud, but the entire university, for once again reaching for the stars and conquering.

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