After losing back-to-back New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) championship games in a row, many looked at the 2021-2022 seasons as the year the Montclair State University women’s basketball team would finally end the Red Hawks’ championship woes.
Unfortunately, Montclair State was the victim of a shocking upset, as No. 6 seeded New Jersey City University (NJCU) led a late fourth-quarter comeback, topped off by a stunning buzzer-beater finish last night. Despite a stellar second half of the regular season and a battle-tested core, the No. 3 seeded Red Hawks were sent home in the quarterfinal round.
To understand what made yesterday’s result so shocking, it’s important to remember how Montclair State got to that point. A preseason poll conducted by NJAC head coaches ranked the team third in the conference. The roster was stocked with a mix of seasoned veterans as well as talented underclassmen, with impact players at both the offensive and defensive ends of the court.
The Red Hawks did not start their season firing at all cylinders, finishing off the 2021 calendar year with a lukewarm 5-6 record, including a 2-3 start in NJAC play. But with the new year came the team that many were expecting to see. Many players began to shine on the court.
Leading the offense was junior guard Nickie Carter, who averaged 17.5 points throughout the season and was a First-Team All-NJAC selection. Alongside her was senior guard Julia Sutton, who despite her shooting efficiency woes (30% from the field), averaged 11.4 points and was on a tear to end the season. Sophomore guard Kendall Hodges helped to supplement the offense, averaging nearly 10 points per game.
On the other end of the court, the star of the show was the NJAC Defensive Player of the Year, senior guard Trisha Peterson. She grabbed 220 rebounds (9.2 per game), which led the conference. As a unit, Montclair State only let up an average of 55.3 points, which tied Stockton University for the conference’s best.
Beginning on Jan. 15, the Red Hawks tore through conference opponents on an eight-game winning streak. Everyone was at the top of their game. In a Feb. 5 game against Rutgers University-Camden, freshman forward Olivia Vero had her breakout game, recording six blocks, tied for fourth all-time. Just four days later, Carter put up 34 points against Rutgers University-Newark, nearly topping Carol Blazejowski’s single-game record.
Although the streak provided numerous memorable moments, it’s important to keep in mind that their opponents were quite frankly below the Red Hawks. Of the eight teams Montclair State faced, only two had winning records in conference play.
In addition, the team was only able to put together a 3-5 record against teams that also finished off their regular season in the top five (Kean University, Rowan University, William Paterson University, Ramapo College) which shows that the Red Hawks have generally struggled against tougher opponents.
At the end of the regular season, Montclair State finished with a strong 12-6 conference record, earning the No. 3 seed in the NJAC tournament. This comes with the privileges of a first-round bye as well as a home playoff game. However, the Red Hawks have played rather poorly at home, only winning half of their 12 games at Panzer Athletic Center.
Who would they face in the first round? None other than NJCU, the same team that toppled Montclair State in last year’s conference championship game, as well as ended their winning streak earlier this year. Both of those losses came in front of the home fans. With the Gothic Knights being led by one of the best players in Division III, First-Team All-NJAC selection sophomore guard Damaris Rodriguez, this game certainly wouldn’t be a walkover.
Right out of the gates, the game was a shootout. Every shot made was countered quickly. The lead changed hands constantly. Going into the locker room at halftime, the score was locked at 35 apiece.
The Red Hawks started the second half with a flurry of offense, kicking it off with a 13-4 run that was capped off by a jumper from Hodges to make it 46-35 midway through the quarter.
Montclair State kept a healthy lead throughout the fourth as well. After Sutton brought it to a 61-53 lead, NJCU turned on the jets, stringing together a 13-5 run in the last five minutes of play. Suddenly, the ballgame was tied at 66. The game came down to the wire as Sutton went 1-2 from the line to put Montclair State up by one.
With just three seconds left, NJCU’s Rodriguez weaved her way past Hodges and over the hand of Peterson for a layup at the buzzer that put Montclair State away in dramatic fashion.
Throughout the game, NJCU was dominant in the paint, putting up 42 points to Montclair State’s 22. Whenever the Gothic Knights were able to get under the basket, points usually followed. There was a clear size for NJCU. The Knights listed four players as 6’0 or over while the Red Hawks listed just one.
In addition, Montclair State had multiple chances of putting away NJCU throughout the second half but they were not able to put them away earlier. NJCU took advantage of late turnovers as well.
As the season comes to an end, there are questions facing the women’s basketball team, chiefly replacing Sutton and Peterson who are both seniors. Younger players are going to have to step up in their place. Surely, the biggest question is what could have been.
This year’s team was in a prime position to finally get over the hump in the NJAC tournament. Now, it’s unclear how the team is going to recover next season. But with experienced head coach Karin Harvey, alongside several key returning players, they will certainly have a shot at redeeming themselves.