by Andrew Garda

Montclair Kimberley Academy boys basketball coach Tony Jones said that in his 20 years coaching, he doesn’t remember a crowd as noisy as the one present for last Friday night’s MKA-Montclair High game at the Cougars’ gym. At one point the crowd grew so loud and boisterous that the guy on the other bench, Mountie coach Gary Wallace, had to scream to his players to be heard even though they were just a short distance away on the court.

The atmosphere was electric, and the fans of both schools got their money’s worth in a game that was far closer than the 71-53 score, indicated, though it was the when the visiting Mountie fans storming the court who went home the happiest.

“It was really fun to see,” Jones said once things had quieted down post-game. “The atmosphere was good, trying to keep the guys calm as they’re being supported was part of the challenge. It was great, I mean, how often do you fill a gym of high school kids? It’s a positive atmosphere and I think both teams really showed up and that was nice to see.”

Despite the occasional communication issues, Wallace was equally thrilled with the night.

“I love that. I mean, shoot, we could do that every year. We could do it here every year,” he said. “I know our gym could probably be a little more spacious and hold a lot more people, but that atmosphere was crazy.”

For Wallace, whose Mounties (5-18) ended their season on a high note, it was also a unique learning experience for his team in a winter filled with a lot of tough lessons.

“For the young guys we brought up the last five, six games, and some of our returners, our juniors, I told them, you guys have got to work. We’re not going to give you guys spots next year, but [now] they got a taste of what it’s like to play in an atmosphere that is just laser lit. I mean you’ve got 100 people standing outside trying to get in the gym. If this doesn’t make them excited and driven to work in the offseason, to get to the state tournament next year, I don’t know what will.”

The crowd had plenty to cheer about from both teams, as MKA held its own against MHS for most of the game, only for the Mounties to finally pull away late in the fourth quarter from the free throw line.

“I think they kind of wore us down a little bit. We’re not super deep,” Jones said. “But I think especially for our younger guys, it’s a learning experience.”

This has been a fulfilling season for his Cougars, who won 10 regular-season games, a marked improvement from a season ago with they won just two.

“When you compare losing by 50 and 60 points, and winning two games and not winning a game until February last year, to see the growth [now], I’m really proud of that. It’s been a very positive season.”

For Wallace, he and his coaching staff will go back to the drawing board and continue to press home the lessons their team learned.

“It’s been a rough season, but we’ve called it a character-building season,” he said. “Not just for the players but for us as coaches, because we’ve had to figure out every day how to get these guys focused, prepared and make them believe they can win. There were a lot of games this year that I think other teams know that we just gave away. And my guys know, there’s no team that we weren’t prepared for or who out-schemed us. We just had no resolve and it took a lot of losing for these guys to see it’s hard to win a basketball game.”

One thing is for sure: both teams showed a lot of promise on the court Friday, and if the volume of cheering was any indicator, there are a lot of basketball fans in Montclair hungry for meaningful basketball in the coming years.

MKA gets at least one more meaningful game as they take on powerhouse Marist (23-5) in the opening round of the NJSIAA North Jersey, Non-Public B Tournament.

Marist is coming off a tight game in the Hudson County Tournament final on Saturday, falling to a strong St. Peter’s Prep squad, 44-41.

“Marist is ridiculously good but it’s an honor just to qualify,” Jones said following the MKA-MHS game. “We’re going to give it our best shot and see what happens.”