By EDWARD KENSIK
For Montclair Local

The Montclair Kimberley Academy girls basketball team went through some growing pains last year.

With only one senior on the roster during the pandemic-shortened 2021 season, the Cougars had a 1-9 record.

This year it was going to be different, with a more seasoned group and a new head coach in former MKA star Isabella Mendez, who just six years ago surpassed the thousand-point mark on the same floor that her charges are dribbling on.

Mendez and the Cougars have gotten over the hurdles of the coach getting her job late in the season, in mid-October, and COVID shutting the team down after its first game.

But while it lost the first game after the shutdown, MKA was enjoying a five-game winning streak as of last week as its mark rose to 6-2.  Mendez wants to accentuate the team’s strengths and limit its weaknesses the rest of the way.

“Our strengths have been capitalizing on the opposing teams’ turnovers during both our press and regular play and also utilizing our team’s speed, athleticism and anticipation on both ends of the floor,” she said. 

“While we’ve shown improvements over the last few games, I believe we can work on taking better care of the ball by making smarter passing decisions and protecting the ball under pressure. We try to set goals before games on how many turnovers we will allow ourselves to have per half.”

One of the top players on the team, senior Patricia Columbia-Walsh, who was on the All Big North-Independence second team last season, knows what the team has been doing right on this recent run.

Montclair Kimberley sophomore Aeryn Curren (center) goes for the ball with teammate, senior Ayantu Flowers right) looking on in the Essex County Tournament game. Montclair Kimberley girls hoops (6-2) won their fifth game in a row after defeating West Side, 68-23, on Jan. 28 at home. (EDWARD KENSIK/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
Montclair Kimberley sophomore Aeryn Curren (center) goes for the ball with teammate, senior Ayantu Flowers right) looking on in the Essex County Tournament game. Montclair Kimberley girls hoops (6-2) won their fifth game in a row after defeating West Side, 68-23, on Jan. 28 at home. (EDWARD KENSIK/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
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“The key to our winning streak has been a combination of utilizing our strengths and sharing the ball,” Columbia-Walsh said. “Instead of individuals trying to shine, everyone is on the same page, that our team’s success is the number one priority.”

Two seniors, Columbia-Walsh and Ayantu Flowers, have been major contributors. The two other seniors on the team are Jess Christian and Chloe Skipper, a first-year hoops player who scored the first two points of her career against West Side on Jan. 28.

Columbia-Walsh is the team’s leading scorer at 15 points per game. Her coach likes to see a little of everything from the senior.

“She has excellent court vision and facilitates the game for us,” Mendez said. “She also anticipates the ball very well defensively, tallying over five steals per game.”

Flowers is second on the team in boards and third in scoring, averaging about eight points and six rebounds per game.

“Ayantu constantly hustles and fights for both defensive and offensive rebounds for us,” Mendez said. “Although she was always a guard, she has done a great job at adjusting to the forward position, and her post moves get better by the day.”

Flowers says a key has been better cohesion this season, and she credits Mendez and assistant coach Amanda Langan.

“I think definitely the team chemistry is better,” Flowers said about the winning streak. “I think our whole skill set is better this season.”

Columbia-Walsh credits 2021 in helping the team to success in 2022.

Montclair Kimberley Academy senior Patricia Columbia-Walsh looks for a teammate against West Side in the Essex County Tournament. MKA (6-2) won its fifth game in a row in defeating the Rough Riders, 68-23, on Jan. 28 at home. (EDWARD KENSIK/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
Montclair Kimberley Academy senior Patricia Columbia-Walsh looks for a teammate against West Side in the Essex County Tournament. MKA (6-2) won its fifth game in a row in defeating the Rough Riders, 68-23, on Jan. 28 at home. (EDWARD KENSIK/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
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“Although most of the names on the roster are the same, we’ve grown together on the court and off,” she said. “We learned that we had to work more cohesively and dig deeper than our opponents. This ‘Leave it all on the court’ mentality was fostered by our many quarantines last season and never knowing when our last game might be.”

But the seniors are just part of the puzzle, and the 23rd-seeded Cougars showed their depth in an Essex County Girls Basketball Tournament play-in game against 26th-seeded West Side.

Montclair Kimberley took care of West Side, 68-23, at home. Next, Montclair Kimberley travels to 10th-seeded Newark Central on Thursday, Feb. 3, in the preliminary round of the tourney. Montclair Immaculate is the top seed and Montclair High School the 21st seed in the tournament.

Against West Side, five Montclair Kimberley players scored nine or more points, led by sophomore Aeryn Curren with a dozen. Each of the juniors on the team, Taylor Powell and Monica Labib, registered 11 points.

In all, nine different Cougars registered points on the score sheet. And sophomore Salange Bell grabbed eight rebounds to lead Montclair Kimberley in that department, along with six points, four assists and four steals. Sophomore Maria Caggiano added six points and four rebounds.

The Cougars were full-on press from the start, and the Rough Riders could not handle it.

It worked so well that West Side did not hit a basket until nine minutes into the game. By that time, MKA had taken a 23-0 lead, and five Cougars had put points in the book.

While advancing in the county tournament is on the agenda, bringing home a Super Essex Conference Independence divisional title along with a winning mark is at its top. “We wanted to set challenging yet reachable goals and are on the right path to achieving them,” Mendez said. 

The Feb.10 game against East Side might determine the division winner. The Cougars are looking to even up the score with the Red Raiders after a 31-25 loss on Jan. 13 after a month off the court. That loss has been the sole negative so far in the Super Essex Conference Independence Division race. 

“Since then, we have had a solid amount of games under our belt, which led to our continuous growth in team chemistry and confidence,” Mendez said. “Our next opportunity against East Side will be Senior Day on our home court, and I believe this will add even more motivation to come out on top.”