by Andrew Garda

If a team is going to get hot, heading into a tournament is the right time to do it.

Montclair Kimberley Academy’s boys basketball team definitely fits that bill, as they extended their winning streak to seven with a 76-56 victory on Sunday against Newark Academy in the opening round of the Prep B Tournament. The last time MKA lost was in this same building, a 67-58 loss to crosstown rival Montclair High School, and while there have been some close calls — a 65-60 win over Glen Ridge on Jan. 30 and a close 83-78 victory the night before against Weequahic — mostly the Cougars have been rolling.

Despite the lopsided victory on Sunday, head coach Tony Jones wasn’t quite satisfied.

“We were a bit sloppy,” Jones said after the game. “We were a little uneven. I don’t think we executed as well as we’d like to but, playing a back to back — we had a really tough game yesterday.”

If MKA was still winded from that game, it didn’t show early on as they ran out to an 11-0 lead. Newark Academy didn’t score until there was just 3:07 left in the first quarter, as their shots consistently fell short or clanked off the rim. Even once they got going, the Minutemen couldn’t gain ground as MKA kept pouring the offensive pressure on, eventually outscoring NA 20-11 to end the quarter.

Along with poor shots, the Minutemen offense was consistently disrupted by Carter McNeal. Whenever Newark Academy tried to toss a quick outlet pass or throw the ball down the court to generate a fast break, McNeal seemed to be there to knock the ball away. He showed a great nose for causing trouble and a tremendous wingspan, reaching high for the ball and knocking it out of bounds when he couldn’t deflect it to a teammate.

“Carter is a guy we depend on to disrupt what teams do offensively,” Jones said. “We love his penetration and he usually really draws a lot of defenders when he penetrates. I think yesterday [vs. Wee] he had about 18 points and today he doesn’t score as much but he always gives us energy.”

McNeal finished the game with just 12 points, but his constant presence on defense was far more impactful than any basket he could make.

Jones said that both McNeal and Trey Wilson were an integral part of the offense.

“We need Carter and Trey to kind of be guys who are going to move us offensively,” Jones said. “The other guys are really finishers, for lack of a better word. And [McNeal and Wilson] really generate some offense for us.”

MSophomore Luke Kolaja (00) battles his way through Newark Academy defenders as he scores one of his 11 baskets. Kolaja would score 23 points during MKA's 76-56 win over the Minutemen. PHOTO BY ANDREW GARDA/STAFF
MSophomore Luke Kolaja (00) battles his way through Newark Academy defenders as he scores one of his 11 baskets. Kolaja would score 23 points during MKA's 76-56 win over the Minutemen. PHOTO BY ANDREW GARDA/STAFF

Another source of offense continues to be Luke Kolaja, who seems cut very much from the cloth of the new basketball big man. Once upon a time, a large center like Kolaja would merely be an interior presence. Now, a guy like him is expected to be able to score from the perimeter as well, which he does with frequency. Of his 26 points, 12 came off three-point shots, and all three of his baskets in the fourth quarter came beyond the arc.

“We try to allow him to do it because that’s really effective for us,” Jones said of his sophomore. “We’re still working on his inside stuff. We tell him all the time, you’re 6-8, who’s going to block your shot at this level? If there’s a big guy, you’re mobile enough to dribble around him. He’s really fully understanding that.”

Kolaja has improved greatly over the course of the season, Jones said.

“Luke’s grown a lot,” Jones said. “His shooting is much more consistent, he’s understanding what teams are trying to do. He’s passing when he should. It’s my job to keep pushing him, so that’s what I try and do.”

While the Cougars only outscored the Minutemen by a basket in the last quarter — they scored 22 to NA’s 20 — that was because they had generated such a lead that Jones was able to get some of his bench in and give some kids a chance to score who never had.

“A lot of the guys don’t play a lot,” he said. “Like Michael Butler. Michael is a senior and he hasn’t scored. So we’re just trying to get him a bucket because we don’t know when he’ll play again. Robbie Hollander, he’s the same way. These guys come to every practice, they work hard. And when we get a chance for him to play, we just give them a look if we can.”

MKA played Weequahic again on Tuesday, and faces Bloomfield Tech in the preliminary round of the Essex County Tournament on Thursday. They will play Pennington in the next round of the Prep Tournament.