|Montclair State celebrated its third consecutive NJAC women's basketball title on Saturday night.
NJAC athletics photo
By Sarah Sommer
Montclair State doesn't usually lose, and it doesn't usually play close games. Yet it did both in its regular-season games against Stockton, falling 61-60 on Jan. 14 and winning 50-47 on Feb. 18. Another small margin seemed inevitable on Saturday, when the teams met in the NJAC tournament final.
"One-point game," Montclair State head coach Karin Harvey said. "That’s exactly what I expected."
Instead, Harvey's team got a 17-point win.
Senior forward Melissa Tobie had a game-high 17 points along with 10 rebounds, four assists, four steals, and three blocks to lead Montclair State (26-1, 17-1 NJAC) to a 59-42 victory and the Red Hawks' third straight NJAC championship.
"Our communication was really great, especially on defense," Tobie said. "We worked hard every possession and made it hard for them to score."
That defense was a different look for Stockton (21-6, 16-2).
"Usually we try to press, and they've done a good job of beating us at that," Harvey said. "So instead of extending ourselves, we just said, 'You know what, we're good enough defenders, we're going to play them in the half court.' And it worked out pretty well."
Montclair State dominated the first half, something the Red Hawks did not do in their previous two meetings with the Ospreys. With 13:32 left in the first 20 minutes, senior guard Janitza Aquino broke an 8-8 tie with a transition layup. On Stockton's next possession, Tobie grabbed the ball out of senior guard Alex Nardoza's hands and went coast to coast for a layup of her own. The Red Hawks led by only four points, but they had all of the momentum.
"Our whole philosophy is defend, rebound, and run,” Harvey said. “That's how we like to play, and that’s when we’re at our best."
Montclair State kept control of the game by recovering from mistakes. After Tobie missed a layup that would have given the Red Hawks a 16-8 advantage, she blocked a layup attempt on the other end. Aquino later took a bad shot with multiple defenders around her, but she hustled to cause a jumpball that led to Tobie hitting a three-pointer. That basket gave Montclair State a 21-12 lead with 7:42 left in the first half.
During its 12-3 run to end the first half, Montclair State made three steals and forced a shotclock violation. What really fired Harvey up, though, was Aquino taking a charge.
"She’s a very good defender, but defense isn’t her thing," Harvey said. "So when Janitza draws a charge, everyone's ecstatic. It'’s fun. It's as motivating as it is if she hits a three."
At halftime, the Red Hawks led 33-18. Montclair State extended its advantage to 18 points with 11:48 left in the second half, leading Stockton to call a full timeout. After that stoppage, the Ospreys cut the Red Hawks' lead from 44-26 to 44-34.
"They're a good team, they're well coached," Harvey said. "I told my team that at halftime, 'Hey, they're going to make a run, we've got to withstand the run, don’t get nervous, just keep playing basketball.'"
And Montclair State did. Tobie made a three-pointer and a layup to put the Red Hawks ahead 50-34 with 5:07 remaining, and the Ospreys did not threaten again.
"Before the game even started, we had a lot of confidence in us winning," Aquino said. "But definitely within the last couple minutes when I saw that we had the whole tempo going and everything was just going our way, it definitely told us that we were going to come out of here with a win."
Harvey knew that her team would be the conference champion when she finally checked the scoreboard.
"I looked up with a minute to go," she said, "and my assistant patted me on the arm and said, 'We got it.'"