County hoops tournaments: Immaculate Conception squads poised for runs
The Immaculate Conception boys and girls basketball teams received the best seedings of area hoops teams for the 2023 Essex County tournaments.
The Lions girls team (12-2) is the top seed on the girls side and is driving to repeat as county champs. Immaculate defeated University, 67-59, in the 2022 title game. University is the second seed this season. The Lions have byes until their first-round home game on Feb. 4.
The Immaculate boys squad (9-7) is the fourth seed. The top seed is Seton Hall Prep, the defending champs, while Arts and Caldwell were pegged as the second and third seeds, respectively. The Lions have byes until Jan. 28, when they host a first-round game.
The Montclair boys and girls teams had the next-best seeds at 18th and 19th, respectively. Unfortunately for the Mounties boys (8-8), they were knocked out by 31 seed Nutley, 59-45, in the second preliminary round on Jan. 23. The Montclair girls squad (10-4) took care of 30th-seeded West Caldwell Tech, 62-24, on Jan. 23 in the second preliminary round.
The 24th-seeded Montclair Kimberley girls team defeated 25th seed Science Park, 38-35, on Jan. 23 at home in the second preliminary round. The Cougars travel to ninth-seeded Glen Ridge on Jan. 26 at 4 p.m.
One of the hottest teams locally and in the county has been the 27th-seeded Montclair Kimberley boys squad (11-3), which had a nine-game winning streak going as of the beginning of this week.
The streak included a 48-42 victory at 22 seed Verona on Jan. 24 in the second preliminary round. With the victory the Cougars travel to 11th-seeded Newark Tech on Jan. 26 at 4 p.m. Senior Marley Stewart led the Cougars in scoring with a game-high 19 points, while senior Isaac Wise chipped in 14.
“I think we are a little bit better defensively," said Cougars head coach Tony Jones, whose team is giving up approximately 40 points per game. "When you do that in high school, it usually gives you a good shot of winning. We are limiting the other team's offensive rebounds and giving them only one shot."
It was a nice comeback against Verona for Montclair Kimberley, which was down by 11, 16-5, after the first quarter. "We chipped at it," Jones said about the deficit and finishing on a 6-0 run to get past the Hillbillies.
The coach said that seedings do not matter. "We just play, and we don't worry about that stuff," he said. "We try to prepare for whoever is in front of us and take away their strength. And see what we can do in the end to win it."
The Immaculate girls team has been playing a tough schedule, especially against quality out-of-state opponents, and earned its way to the top seed. Its two losses have come against a California school, Etiwanda, on Jan. 14 in the St. James MLK Classic in Washington, D.C., and to University, 68-62, on Jan. 19 in what might be a preview of a rematch in this year's ECT finals.
Lions head coach Jimmy Kreie said another trip to the finals could only be derailed by their own play.
"We've learned we’re the only team around that can beat us," Kreie said. "For us to repeat it will be to play for each other and not just with each other."
For the Immaculate girls team, the duo that played so well last season — senior guard Tyonna Bailey from the outside and sophomore forward Nila Giraud inside — has not missed a beat.
Last season, the Immaculate boys team reached the county tournament semifinals before falling to Newark Central, 68-56.
Lions boys head coach Jimmy Salmon said the seedings this season didn't matter despite the fact that his team had defeated second-seeded Arts, 68-63, on Jan. 16 in the Freedom Fighters Hoops Challenge in Paterson.
"The seeding is always weird," Salmon said. "The criteria change from year to year, school to school and coach to coach."
He said that if his team plays quality basketball the seeding will be irrelevant. "We know what we have to do, and we just have to do it," he said.
In a preview of a possible ECT boys semifinals matchup on Feb. 11 in West Orange, the Lions lost a heartbreaker to Seton Hall Prep, 61-60, on Jan. 21 at Newark West Side, on a buzzer-beating shot by Pirate Ethan Maynard.
It was even tougher since Immaculate led 43-26 at halftime, only to see Seton Hall Prep come roaring back in the third quarter and cut the Lions’ lead to 52-46. It ruined a big night from Immaculate freshman Kole Grandison, who had a game-high 24 points.
With the victory over West Caldwell Tech, the Montclair girls squad had won three straight games and seven out of nine.
Mounties girls head coach Ed Connell said the team has been rounding into shape over the last month. "We feel confident in our systems and our identity on offense and defense," Connell said. "We are also keenly aware of how excellent we can be playing at our best."
In the victory over West Caldwell Tech, it was Montclair’s potent duo of sophomore Savannah Seawell and senior Elsa Taylor-Lillquist who were explosive, with 28 and 20 points, respectively.
For the Montclair boys team, it’s been a roller-coaster season. Before losing to Nutley in the county tournament, the Mounties defeated Newark Central, 61-49, on the road on Jan. 21. Newark Central is the 14th seed in the tournament.
Senior Shindon Thompson led the Mounties against Nutley with 15 points, while junior Shawn Kirkley and another senior, Jaden Reid, added eight and seven points, respectively.
The Mounties sliced a double-digit deficit to six points, 36-30, in the third quarter with the help of their defense. But the offense could not get them any closer.
Before the loss to Nutley, Montclair won back-to-back contests after a five-game losing streak. Before defeating Newark Central, the Mounties came from behind to win at Millburn, 49-47.
In that win, Montclair was down 31-18 at halftime. "There were a couple of adjustments that we made at halftime," head coach Cecil Stinson said. "We wanted to speed up the game a bit and force Millburn to make quick decisions with the ball, so we went full-court press, and that really seemed to bother them."
Sophomore Jahi Whitney and Thompson led Montclair with 12 and 10 points, respectively.
Against Newark Central, the Mounties had another impressive second half. This time they outscored their opponent, 36-22. Reid and Thompson had 14 and 10 points, while Kirkley chipped in nine.