By EDWARD KENSIK
kensik@montclairlocal.news

It’s been a long time since they brought home an Essex County Tournament title cup, but the Immaculate Conception Lions finally did it on Saturday afternoon, Feb. 19.

Immaculate struggled against University in the championship game, but went on to win 67-59 to end the program’s 32-year county title drought. Its only previous county title, in 1990, also came against University.

In the four games in the tournament the Lions outscored their opponents 284-164.

For Immaculate head coach Jimmy Kreie, his team’s victory was justly deserved because of the time its members have put in on the court.

“The kids have put in the work,” Kreie said. “They work. They show up, and they love basketball. It’s nice when it all comes to fruition.”

Lions sophomore forward Tayla Thomas had a monster game, with 32 points and 18 rebounds, as University could not counter Immaculate’s inside game.

“She will be the county player of the year,” Kreie said about Taylor. "She is head and shoulders above anybody else, and today just cemented that.”

Junior Tyonna Bailey and freshman Nila Giraud chipped in 13 and 8 points, respectively.

For Bailey, who transferred from Morris Catholic in the offseason, it was especially sweet. “It feels great,” said Bailey, who is from Newark. “I’m from Essex County, so to come back and win the title is great.”

Along with winning the county championship, Bailey surpassed the thousand-point mark for her career in the third quarter. “She pushed me, and I just concentrated on making the shot,” she said about the University player guarding her and the basket, which she made while falling. 

Bailey said the goal in the championship game was to get the ball underneath to Taylor. “Wherever she (Taylor) is, she catches it,” she said.

The triumphant Lions with their Essex County Tournament trophies. (EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
The triumphant Lions with their Essex County Tournament trophies. (EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
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Kreie and the Lions zigged when University zagged.

The Phoenix defense tried to stop Immaculate’s perimeter play, and the Lions just fed Thomas in the middle.

Despite all the points from Thomas, University was only two possessions from catching the Lions in the fourth quarter. The Phoenix’s Mya Davis led University with 20 points, including five threes that made it hard for Immaculate to pull away. 

The Lions found their lead trimmed to five, 50-45, after a Davis three-point bucket with six minutes remaining in the contest.

“I told them to calm down and keep scoring,” Kreie said. “All we had to do was match them in scoring.”

It was Thomas who was the difference. Bailey fed her inside for a bucket that gave the Lions an 8-point lead, 59-51, with three minutes left.

University would never get closer.

The Lions defeated University earlier this season, 77-38 on Jan 25.

But Immaculate knew that it was going into a fight this go-round. “I felt that they really came out to play, and we fought through it,” said Lions senior Tiara Bellamy, one of two seniors on the team, the other being Niyah Whitten. 

University took the lead, 15-14, to start the second quarter after a Paradise Fisher basket.

But Immaculate would double up the Phoenix, 16-8, the rest of the first half to give themselves a 30-23 halftime advantage.

In the second half, the Lions would take a double-digit lead, only to have it cut to a two-possession game in the final minutes.

With the county title in its pocket, Immaculate will look next for a Non-Public North B state title. A sectional title would give the Lions a triple crown, to go along with the Super Essex Conference-American division title and the county title.

In the state tournament, the Lions open as the third seed and will host sixth-seeded Roselle Catholic on March 4 in the quarterfinals. The two teams seeded higher than Immaculate are second-seeded Morris Catholic and top-seeded Saddle River Day.