by Andrew Garda

EAST ORANGE—The Montclair High School boys basketball team and head coach Gary Wallace knew they would be facing a challenging first month of the season, given that they’re opening up with nine consecutive games away from home.

But Monday afternoon’s 69-53 loss to Cardozo High School of Bayside, Queens, underscored that things have been even tougher than expected.

The Dec. 30 game was the Mounties’ second game as part of the Tim Thomas New Jersey High School Hoops Showcase, the first being a 54-46 win over South Bronx Prep on Saturday, Dec. 28.

But while they were overmatched against Cardozo, the Mounties’ only games against New Jersey opposition have been very encouraging. MHS (1-4, 0-1 SEC-American) was defeated by Columbia, 52-47, on opening night Dec. 19, and followed that up with a heartbreaking loss on a buzzer beater to St. Peter’s Prep, 61-60, on Dec. 23 in Jersey City.

Montclair also fell to Archbishop Molloy, another New York City team, in a non-tournament game on Dec. 27 by a score of 74-55.

Monday against Cardozo, an undefeated New York City powerhouse that regularly competes for the city championship, it took an outstanding second half effort from Omarion Jett  to keep the score as close as it was. The senior guard scored 18 in the third and fourth quarters, though the New Yorkers had jumped on top early.

MHS found themselves down 21-7 after the first frame, as they turned the ball over at an alarming rate.

“When you have 29 turnovers before the fourth quarter…I mean, we were fortunate to be down by 12, by 15,” Wallace said after the game. “Like, in the first half we had 19 turnovers, and they had 14 offensive rebounds. How do you expect to give yourself any chance to win when you can’t even hold onto the ball?”

That’s been part of the puzzle Wallace and his staff are trying to piece together — how do they keep the team from shooting itself in the foot? 

“When we don’t turn the ball over, we’re a decent team. When we execute, when we slow down, we can do some things. We have some guys that can heat up very quickly, but we need to have some discipline with it.”

Montclair chipped away at Cardozo’s lead — mostly through Jett’s herculean effort — but the hole was too deep. 

Montclair’s Omarion Jett drives for a basket against Cardozo (NY) during the Mounties 69-53 loss on Monday, Dec. 30, 2019.
Montclair’s Omarion Jett drives for a basket against Cardozo (NY) during the Mounties 69-53 loss on Monday, Dec. 30, 2019.

More than anything else, Wallace feels the issues turning the ball over are a lack of attention to detail both during games and in practice. 

“We don’t understand that the way we practice, is the way we play. And if we don’t practice game-like, the show’s over,” he said. “Our best game was St. Peter’s because we had a great practice before that.”

Wallace said the team, in general, has been too lackadaisical in practice, and it’s shown in both the close losses and blowouts.

“I told these guys look, we’re going to be tested, and we’re going to be forged in the fire, but I actually need you guys to be a participant in that forging. Give me some energy, some effort. Let’s play hard.”

The Mounties showed they can play hard in the fourth quarter against Cardozo. Now they have to prove they can do it all four quarters and when it counts, finish games.

The inability to do both of those things has been the difference in the young season.

“We always say ‘What If,’ but right now I almost feel like we should be 4-1, and instead we’re on the adverse, 1-4.”

The Mounties continued their arduous early-season scheduled on New Year’s Day against Paterson Kennedy after press time, with a road trip against perennial power Linden on tap for tonight, Thursday, Jan. 2, at 7 p.m.

Montclair then plays three more road games, at Immaculate Conception (Jan. 7), Seton Hall Prep (Jan. 9) and Bloomfield (Jan. 11) before their home opener Tuesday, Jan. 14, against Payne Tech.