By EDWARD KENSIK
kensik@montclairlocal.news

The Immaculate Conception girls basketball team was looking to add a third trophy to its display case this season, but that dream went up in smoke on Monday night, March 7.

The third-seeded Lions had turnover problems at second-seeded Morris Catholic and could not get their offense in full gear in the Non-Public North B state semifinals.

The result was a 65-59 loss to the Crusaders that ended Immaculate’s season, two wins short of the triple crown of the division/league, county and state titles. The Lions had won the Super Essex Conference American Division and Essex County Tournament championships.

Despite the defeat, Immaculate head coach Jimmy Kreie pointed to the success of the team, which finished with a 20-5 record.

“It was a phenomenal season, county champs and conference champs,” Kreie said. “And we were a top-five team in the state at the end of the year.”

Although they were down by 14 with five minutes left in the game, the Lions never gave up, as they chipped the Morris Catholic lead down to four, 60-56, with 48 seconds remaining after junior Tyonna Bailey hit two of three free throws.

But with the Lions forced to foul as the Crusaders were killing the clock, Morris Catholic was hitting its free throws, and Immaculate could not do anything about it.

Despite missing about four minutes to an injury, Bailey, who transferred from Morris Catholic this season, dropped in 17 points to go along with 17 from freshman Nila Giraud. Sophomore Tayla Thomas added 15 to the Lions cause. 

The difference for Morris Catholic was the play of the freshman Pauldo twins, Mya and Mia, who combined for 38 points, 27 by Mia Pauldo, and the Crusaders’ draining seven threes as a team.

The turning point might have come early in the second quarter. Immaculate held a 26-20 lead, but within 22 seconds, that evaporated and turned into a one-point deficit, 27-26.

Unfortunately for the Lions, that was the last time they would lead in the game.

The Immaculate Conception bench celebrates a run in the first half against Morris Catholic. (EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
The Immaculate Conception bench celebrates a run in the first half against Morris Catholic. (EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
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Coming into the battle with Morris Catholic, the Lions were running on all cylinders with an 11-game winning streak, including defeating sixth-seeded Roselle Catholic, 87-35, in the quarterfinals of the state sectionals on Friday, March 4, in Montclair.

Bailey led the Lions with 24 points against Roselle Catholic, as seven different Immaculate players scored. Senior Nyah Whitten and Thomas added 15 points each, and Thomas had a double-double on the night, with 11 rebounds.

It was Bailey who was on fire from the start. She scored the Lions’ first seven points, and then topped off the first half with a three-point bucket from the right corner. The junior would score 17 of her 24 points in the first half.

“I just let the game come to me,” she said. “The team was great in setting me up.”

Kreie said Bailey was getting the most out of the minimum. “She was very efficient,” he said. “She had 24 points on only 13 shots, and had six assists.”

Defensively, Immaculate looked to stop Roselle Catholic’s top scorers, Jasmin McKay and Amaris Jenkins.

“We were looking to stop [No.] 1 [McKay] and 23 [Jenkins] and get them to pass to somebody else,” Bailey said. 

McKay, who was averaging 17 points per game, was limited to six points by the Lions’ defense. “It was pressure, pressure on their guards,” Kreie said.

The coach said it was perfect team basketball, especially on the offensive side of the court.

“That is the point of a team,” Kreie said. “When they are concentrating on one aspect, you counter it. When they were double-teaming Tayla [Thomas], they were blatantly leaving the wings open. And our shots were going down.”

Everything worked to perfection for Immaculate, whether on offense or defense.

After Bailey dropped the game’s first seven points, the Lions’ defense did not allow a point until almost three minutes were gone in the first quarter.

And then the Immaculate defense did not allow a Roselle Catholic bucket until 42 seconds were left in the quarter.

Just after that, Lions freshman Nila Giraud hit two free throws to end the quarter and give Immaculate a 26-5 lead.

While Roselle Catholic was dropping some three-point buckets to keep itself slightly in the game, Bailey dismissed that with a pair of threes in the final two minutes of the first half to hand the Lions a 44-16 lead going into intermission.

Before the win over Roselle Catholic, the Lions played last on Feb. 24, winning 59-24 over Mount St. Dominic on the road. Thomas and Bailey led the Lions with 17 and 15 points respectively.