By EDWARD KENSIK
kensik@montclairlocal.news

It was a special evening for the Montclair Kimberley Academy girls basketball team.

Not only was it Senior Night on Tuesday, Feb. 22, but the Cougars pulled off a rare win against crosstown rival Montclair. 

The Cougars (12-7) played one of their best games of the season en route to a 51-21 victory over the Mounties (5-9) at Montclair Kimberley in a Super Essex Conference crossover contest.

“We went into this game with the best energy we’ve had so far,” MKA senior Ayantu Flowers said. “Without a doubt, this game was one of the best high school experiences I’ve had. Beating Montclair … on such a special night is something I’ll never forget.”

In recent years the Mounties have dominated the Cougars. Since MKA started a girls basketball program in the 1970s, the wins have been few against Montclair.

MKA senior Patricia Columbia-Walsh had a game-high 17 points, while Flowers chipped in nine, all in the first half. For Montclair, senior Ayanna Brantley led the team with eight points, seven in the first half. 

“I can confidently say winning on Senior Night is the highlight of my time on MKA girls basketball, especially against a crosstown rival,” said Columbia-Walsh, who scored 10 of her 17 points in the first half. “The win, in my eyes, is the culmination of all the work our team has put in over the last couple of years, and I couldn’t be more proud.”

MKA head coach Isabella Mendez agreed.

“Beating our crosstown rival on any day is always special, but for us to do it on Senior Night was definitely the highlight of our season,” Mendez said. “We focused on doubling their girls in the paint since they mostly score from there, which was key.”

Along with Flowers and Columbia-Walsh, the other two MKA seniors who were honored before the game were Chloe Skipper and Jess Christian.

MKA honored its seniors on Feb. 22 against Montclair. The Cougars seniors are, from left, Ayantu Flowers, Chloe Skipper, Patricia Columbia-Walsh and Jess Christian. (EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
MKA honored its seniors on Feb. 22 against Montclair. The Cougars seniors are, from left, Ayantu Flowers, Chloe Skipper, Patricia Columbia-Walsh and Jess Christian. (EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
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For the Mounties it was a tough year from the start, as their season was delayed because of COVID for a month and their first game was not until Jan. 20.

But after the loss to MKA, Montclair won its final two games of the season, home against Bloomfield, 49-42 and at Livingston, 34-31, on Feb. 23 and Feb. 25, respectively. Both Bloomfield and Livingston had winning records, portending good things for Montclair for the 2022-23 season.

Montclair head coach Ed Connell said his squad’s success in both of those games came down to execution.

“Everyone in the program believed in the quality of play and ability we had, but it all came together in those games," said Connell, whose team also defeated Cedar Grove, 39-32, on Feb. 12. 

“One quality win might be a fluke, but three in a matter of weeks is a trend. Our team was capable of that caliber of play all year; it just took some time to put it all together.”

As to next year, Brantley will be lost to graduation, but the duo of junior Elisa Taylor-Lillquist and freshman Savannah Seawell will be back. Each had 16 points in the win over Bloomfield.

While Montclair’s season is over, the Cougars are the 10th seed in Non-Public North A and travel to seventh-seeded Morristown-Beard on March 2. A Montclair Kimberley win would have them take on second-seeded Newark Academy on Friday, March 4.

Morristown-Beard is no stranger to MKA this season. The Cougars lost a tough 51-47 battle to the Crimson on Feb. 6. Since that loss, Montclair Kimberley has gone 5-3, including the win over Montclair.

Mendez ticked off what her team has done well in the last eight games of the regular season: “Rebounding the ball, minimizing our fouls and having good ball movement on offense.”

Since the start of the year, the first-year head coach said, the side of the floor where she has seen the greatest adjustment has been the defense. 

“From understanding where to be positionally in a zone to executing a proper box-out to minimizing put-backs for the other team, our defense continues to improve,” she said.