The College rolled through the competition on its way to the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) Championship, but they hit a road block in the Cougars of Kean University. The Cougars downed the Lions 70-61 at a rowdy Packer Hall Friday evening to earn their 12th league title since they won the first NJAC tournament in 1983.
The Lions still have hope, however, as they were granted an at-large “C” bid for the NCAA Division III Tournament to take place later this week.
“We have a good shot at getting in as much as anyone else,” junior center Hillary Klimowicz said before she found out their bid prospect had been decided. “In the long term I’d rather win the NCAAs, but (the NJAC Championship) is what we wanted to win right now.”
Five Cougars scored in double figures, including junior guards Melissa Beyruti and Ebony Jackson. The backcourt tandem led a lightning-quick attack, as they combined on 27 points, eight assists and five steals.
“In the last seven minutes of the first half, they got too many quick baskets in transition,” said head coach Dawn Henderson, who had won the 2007-2008 NJAC Coach of the Year days earlier. “When you take a bad shot or you commit a turnover, you’re only helping their transition game, and that’s what happened during that time.”
“We couldn’t stop it,” she added, “and that was the difference in the game.”
The Cougars’ fast-paced offense was a huge part of their game, but the key matchup in the contest had to be the Cougars’ stifling defense going head-to-head with the high-octane offense of the Lions for the third time this year. Kean’s rugged play on the defensive end kept them ahead the entire game, including a dominant 36-19 halftime lead.
“We shot 22 percent from the floor when we normally shoot 40 percent,” Henderson said. “Did we get tentative because of their defense? Sure. But I’m really happy how we played through it in the second half.”
The Lions did play through the deficit, but not before the Cougars continued to increase their lead to 20 points as the second half opened. The Lions fought back and made it as close as eight points, but every time it seemed they would go on a run, the Cougars continued their onslaught.
“It’s very disappointing,” Klimowicz, who had a career-high 28 points and 17 boards in the loss, said. “We don’t want this season to be over, and it’s sad, but I think we definitely left it all out there tonight.”
Adding to the 2007-2008 NJAC Player of the Year’s effort was senior guard/forward Sara Best, who dropped 11 points on the evening, while NJAC Rookie of the Year Kelsey Kutch added eight points, 10 rebounds and four assists.
“These girls are warriors,” Henderson said. “They were exhausted and they just kept fighting against those big bodies going up against them.”
The aforementioned warriors got to host the contest against Kean after soundly defeating the Red Hawks of Montclair State University 74-52 Wednesday night.
The College’s 19-point lead at the half held up nicely, as three Lions scored in double-digits and the team shot 50 percent from the field.
“We got sloppy in the second half, but we never backed down,” Henderson said. “It’s a testament to our team and how we are able to close out games.”
The Lions will look to close out game No. 1 of their NCAA tournament quest as they head to the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va. The College will first play the Bears of Bridgewater College on March 7. This is the first round of the 63-team NCAA Division III Tournament.