Revenge was not even an afterthought.
After falling at home to conclude their 2007-2008 season, the Lions turned the tide this year as they took down defending New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) Champion Kean University 69-57 to claim their first NJAC crown since 2006 at home.
After winning their fourth NJAC title in school history, the Lions received an automatic bid into the 2009 NCAA Division III Tournament.
The tournament begins today, and there is also still a possibility the Lions will host their opening-round matchup at Packer Hall.
“It feels great,” Coach Dawn Henderson said. “It was obviously a lot of fun to win, and after seeing these kids work through all the highs and lows we’ve had and play together, it was great.”
“It’s awesome,” junior guard Nicole Diaz said. “It’s a great feeling, and I’m so happy for the seniors, too. They deserve it.”
Those seniors, center Hillary Klimowicz, and guards Alyssa Michella and Lisa Koch, were honored before the traditional NJAC championship plaque and t-shirts were presented to the winners.
“As far as the seniors go, I think we really wanted this,” Klimowicz said. “Lisa had already had a championship, so I’m sure it means a lot to her to have started and finished with a championship. It really just felt like all the hard work, 6 a.m. practices and fighting through injuries paid off.”
The game itself was a rough and physical one, as expected. The Lions, donning pink shoelaces and pink warm-up shirts, began the game going to their bread-and-butter approach, as they combined outside shooting and low-post scoring by Klimowicz and junior Alexandra Gregorek. The two centers totaled 21 of the Lions’ 30 first-half points.
The Cougars attempted to use their aggressive play and physicality to keep the Lions off-balance, but it was not completely effective.
“We finished shots inside, and that was a part of our game plan,” Henderson said.
“When we were up 2-0, we really needed that kick to start a run,” Gregorek, who had 12 points on the afternoon, said. “It was important and after getting it down low. We did that.”
Kean University had an interesting approach on offense as well, as they ran quickly up and down the court to counteract the slow, methodical approach of the College. Their scheme of taking quick shots worked when they got open looks, but the College moved efficiently around the perimeter on defense.
They held the Cougars scoreless until 13:39 was left in the first half, forcing 17 turnovers in the first half and holding their opponents to just 32 percent from the floor and 16.7 percent from downtown.
“We played good defense in the first half,” Henderson said. “I stress defense.”
As the second half began, the Cougar offense began to drop the shots that had not been falling in the previous half. They cut the Lions’ lead to seven at 32-25, but it would not last.
A ferocious offensive output by the Lions over the next six minutes put them up by as many as 21, and the game was out of reach from there.
“We know that Kean is a team that thrives off of runs,” Klimowicz said. “We knew we needed to stop their runs once they started them and we were able to do that before they cut the lead too close. Honestly, we just wanted to cut down those nets so badly I don’t think anyone could have stopped us.”
Klimowicz, the NJAC Women’s Basketball Player of the Year, led the Lions in scoring with 19 points and also pulled nine boards and seven blocked shots.
Diaz also contributed by tying a career-high with 12points, including 9-11 from the free throw line. Michella grabbed a team-high 10 boards, as she dropped 12 points for her team as well.
“Having four players in double digits means that we are peaking at the right time,” Klimowicz said. “People are stepping up and that means we will only be that much better come NCAA tournament time.”
The Lions improved their impressive record to 23-4 overall and 11-2 in the NJAC. They have won 20 of their last 21 and are undefeated at home this year (13-0).
The Cougars dropped to 21-7 on the campaign, with an 11-2 NJAC mark. But again, it was all about the Lions victory.
“After winning this game, it puts us in a pretty good light as far as a first round game is concerned,” Henderson said.
The Lions wait for their first round matchup in the 2009 NCAA Division III Tournament against DeSales University on March 6.