The Immaculate Conception girls basketball team's expectations were very high this season, with most of the members back from the 2021-22 team that won the Essex County Tournament, and so far, it has lived up to those expectations, starting off a robust 10-0.

Not even a controversy about running up the score against Caldwell – which resulted in Immaculate’s coach being suspended for four games – has slowed the Lions' train.

As of last weekend, Immaculate was 10-0 after winning the Blue Star Invitational in Philadelphia by beating Riverdale Baptist of Maryland, 60-55, on Jan. 8.

Head coach Jimmy Kreie has pointed out how different this team is compared to 2021-22’s, which went 20-5.

"We play a lot faster, and we have fully committed to the defensive side," Kreie said. "Because of our strength and conditioning we are up and down the court a lot more and a lot faster. And we have a lot more tricks up our sleeves."

Coming into the season the Lions had the majority of their top players back, including senior guard Tyonna Bailey, who was an All New Jersey player last year, and senior guard Ore Ogunwolere and sophomore forward Nila Giraud, who were named to the All Super Essex Conference American Division second team and honorable mention list, respectively.

Immaculate Conception sophomore forward Nila Giraud (10) is the rock inside for the Lions this season. She is shown against West Orange as the Lions would defeat the Mountaineers, 55-35, on the road. Immaculate Conception girls basketball has started 10-0 this season as of late last week. The Lions are looking to repeat as Essex County Tournament champions this season and also to bring home a state championship. (EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
Immaculate Conception sophomore forward Nila Giraud (10) is the rock inside for the Lions this season. She is shown against West Orange as the Lions would defeat the Mountaineers, 55-35, on the road. Immaculate Conception girls basketball has started 10-0 this season as of late last week. The Lions are looking to repeat as Essex County Tournament champions this season and also to bring home a state championship. (EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
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In addition, the team saw the addition of senior guard Ciera Cevallos, a transfer from St. John Vianney.

"We want to repeat as county champions and finish the season number one, with a national ranking," Kreie said. "We are very good and have made defense our signature." 

If the Lions continue at their current pace, there is no doubt they will be jumping into the ESPN national rankings, joining St. John Vianney and Paul VI from New Jersey.

The team has gone 6-0 within the Super Essex Conference and won its four independent contests.

The only blemish has come from the 104-30 victory over Caldwell on Dec. 15, after which there were charges that Immaculate ran up the score.

In response to the complaints, the school suspended Kreie for four games. 

“We want to reiterate that what occurred on Thursday (Dec. 15) evening does not represent our school’s values and beliefs,” Immaculate Athletic Director Jim Risoli said in response to the complaints. 

“We try to make it our mission to uphold such virtues as respect, honor and dignity in all things we do. When it comes to athletic competition, sportsmanship is something that we take pride in, and unfortunately what occurred last Thursday evening was not something we condone."

Kreie would not comment on the game, but the school reported that he wrote a letter of apology to the Caldwell athletic department and the girls basketball team. The two teams meet again on Thursday, Jan. 12, in Caldwell.

The Super Essex Conference does have a running clock rule that kicks in if one team is ahead by at least 30 points in the second half, meaning the game clock is not stopped unless a timeout is called or the third quarter ends. It was reported that the running clock was not utilized in the game against Caldwell.

Immaculate Conception junior forward Brenae Jones (with ball) looks to drive on the baseline against West Orange on Jan. 3. The Lions would defeat the Mountaineers, 55-35, on the road. Immaculate Conception girls basketball has started 10-0 this season as of late last week. The Lions are looking to repeat as Essex County Tournament champions this season and also to bring home a state championship. (EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
Immaculate Conception junior forward Brenae Jones (with ball) looks to drive on the baseline against West Orange on Jan. 3. The Lions would defeat the Mountaineers, 55-35, on the road. Immaculate Conception girls basketball has started 10-0 this season as of late last week. The Lions are looking to repeat as Essex County Tournament champions this season and also to bring home a state championship. (EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
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Despite the controversy, Immaculate has continued to play well and is the favorite to make it back-to-back Essex County Tournament championships. The Lions defeated University last season to win the county title.

Kreie knows what it will take to repeat this season in the county tournament. "We have to focus, and we have to beat complacency," he said.

Immaculate also is aiming for a state title. The Lions lost at Morris Catholic, 65-59, in a back-and-forth battle in the Non-Public North B semifinals last March. The team will have to get past the likes of Morris Catholic and Saddle River Day, which won the Non-Public North B title last year, to bring home a state championship in 2023.

So far this season, Kreie does not have a set five and can go up to 10 deep, led by a solid eight: Bailey, Ogunwolere, Giraud, sophomore guard Camille Wiley, junior forward Renee Anglin, junior forward Brenae Jones, junior guard India Lee and Cevallos.

"We have defensive lineups and offensive lineups," the coach said. "We play matchups like chess."

Bailey has continued her All State-level play this season, leading the Lions in scoring with 21.4 points per game to go along with 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals per game.

"She can score from anywhere on the court, and make the right play whenever she wants," said Kreie, who likes everything about her game. "Every off-season she’s worked on her game and is the state's best scorer. This off-season she’s also dedicated a lot of her time on leadership, and it shows on and off the court. Skill gets you in the door, her character keeps her at the table."

Inside, it’s Giraud, who averages a double-double, with 10 points and 10 rebounds per game, and has added a three-point shot to her arsenal.

"Nila is a top 10 player in the state and showed that consistently all off-season versus the best teams in the state," Kreie said. "She is a powerhouse down low that can now step out and shoot 40 percent from three. 

“She is a matchup nightmare for everyone. She started to take her body seriously and has excelled exponentially at her role. She is seizing her opportunity in a big way."

Cevallos can hit from the perimeter. "She’s here to stretch the floor, and she does that in a big way," the coach said. "Her job is to hit threes so teams can’t double down on our posts. She does that, and she doesn’t even have her legs under her yet."

Immaculate Conception girls basketball schedule
(Games at 4 p.m. unless noted)

Jan. 12 at Caldwell
Jan. 14 Etiwanda (California), TBA, St. James, Virginia
Jan. 16 IMG (Florida), TBA, St. James, Virginia
Jan. 19 University
Jan. 24 at East Orange, 7 p.m.
Jan. 29 Rutgers Prep, TBA, Bronx
Jan. 31 West Orange, 7 p.m.
Feb. 2 Columbia, 7 p.m.
Feb. 5 at St. John Vianney, 5:10 p.m.
Feb. 8 at Long Island Lutheran, New York
Feb. 14 at Newark Central
Feb. 15 at Mount St. Dominic