By Miguel Gonzalez
After a season full of victories, close calls and tremendous player performances, the women’s basketball team was set to compete in the New Jersey Athletic Conference tournament for the first time since 2015.
As the second seed, the Lions beat Stockton University, 70-56, on Feb. 20 at Packer Hall in the NJAC semifinals. The team was then knocked out by Montclair State University, 58-51, in the NJAC championship on Friday, Feb. 23.
Head coach Chessie Jackson says the team stuck to its typical routine to prepare for the game.
“Our team prepared for our semi-final matchup the same way that they have prepared for any opponent all year,” Jackson said. “We knew we needed to make some adjustments from the last time we saw Stockton at their place, so we focused on limiting second-chance scoring and being composed on the offensive end. The atmosphere was exciting and really helped our team’s energy from moment one.”
With a cheering crowd and Roscoe the Lion strolling through the sidelines, the Lions quickly jumped to a 6-2 lead. Freshman forward Shannon Devitt scored the team’s first two points off a jump shot. Senior guard Charlotte Schum then dribbled through Stockon’s defense and made a layup.
Stockton immediately countered when senior forward Sasha Williams caught the Lions on their heels and sprinted down the court on a fastbreak to score a layup. Sophomore forward Jen Byrne and senior forward Nikki Schott followed up the play with three-pointers of their own.
The team continued to bury Stockton until the second quarter. In the 11th minute, Stockton senior guard Lea Mendolla scored a layup to cut the Lions’ lead to 20-19. Both teams then spent the second quarter scoring back and forth, keeping the score close.
Schott hit her stride in the 18th minute and scored a layup and a pair of throws in 50 seconds. Stockton then countered as they scored a three-pointer and a layup to inch closer to the Lions, 33-29.
The team broke through in the third quarter. Byrne scored another layup in the 22nd minute. The Lions defense then blocked a layup attempt by Williams.
The team continued to overwhelm Stockton with a series of baskets to build a 48-34 lead. Junior guard Kate O’Leary joined in on the scoring barrage when she made a layup and a free throw in the 29th minute.
Jackson credits the team’s third quarter surge to aggressive scoring and proper rest.
“We made some strategic adjustments at halftime that gave us better structure in the third quarter,” Jackson said. “But we also had a chance to rest legs for 15 minutes, which really helped us push the tempo early in the third. I think that once we went on a solid run, our team had great momentum which gave individuals confidence to be aggressive and score hungry down the stretch. I was proud of the way we came out in the second half.”
By the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Lions held onto a commanding 53-40 lead which they refused to give up. In the 37th minute, junior forward Samantha Famulare drained two consecutive three-pointers. Devitt then padded the Lions lead to 70-54 when she grabbed a rebound and scored a layup. The Lions ultimately booked their ticket to an NJAC championship appearance with a convincing 70-56 victory.
The team’s next challenge was playing against Montclair State University on the road. Every victory the team achieved this season added up for a chance to claim the NJAC title.
Jackson and the team were more than ready for the NJAC championship game.
“Our team has been preparing all season for this opportunity and we see it as a real privilege to be able to compete in the conference championship game,” Jackson said. “I’m hopeful that our level of play will reflect that preparation.”
In the end, the defending NJAC champions, Montclair State, reasserted their dominance with a 58-51 win.
The Lions started off slow as Montclair State surged to a 10-5 lead as layups proved to be their specialty. The Lions then gained control and tried to catch up. In the fourth minute, Famulare stole the ball and passed it to Schum, who then scored a layup. Byrne then scored another layup to cut the Lions’ deficit to 14-10 at the end of the first quarter.
Both teams kept battling for a lead until Montclair pulled ahead in the fourth quarter. With the game tied at 49 in the 35th minute, Montclair halted the Lions offense. Senior guard/forward Katie Sire fueled Montclair’s offense with two jump shots to seal the Lions’ loss, 58-51.