The Montclair High School girls basketball team’s formula for success in 2016-17 figures to be a simple one. The Mounties are undersized, but have three standout guards – seniors Alisa Wiggins and Jill Jennings and sophomore Bianca Fede – who can provide consistent offense. And MHS will look to play frenetic, high-pressure defense designed to create havoc and turnovers.
In Friday night’s season opener, Montclair’s defense lived up to expectations, but a cold shooting night doomed the home team to a 43-36 defeat against rival Bloomfield.
True to form, Fede led the Mounties with 15 points, while Wiggins (13 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists) and Jennings (8 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists) combined for the remainder. But MHS struggled all night shooting the ball, finishing the game at just 29.7 percent.
Bloomfield’s size advantage translated into a decisive rebounding edge, which proved to be the difference.
“It’s kind of amazing we were in the game at the end,” said Montclair’s second-year head coach Paul Palek. “We’re not going to win a lot of games shooting as poorly as we shot tonight. I thought we made good decisions and took good shots, but they just didn’t fall tonight. But it’s a long season, obviously it’s not how you want to start it, but we’ve got some very talented players in our locker room. We’re gonna focus on putting together a strong quarter of offense, a strong quarter of defense, and go from there.”
Rebounding will be an issue all season for MHS, which returns four starters from a team that won 15 games last season, but graduated their top scorer and rebounder, Katie Higgins.
Anna Gottesman (7 rebounds) and Wiggins (6) battled on the boards Friday night, and Montclair had 14 offensive rebounds, but Bloomfield gathered 16 more rebounds than Montclair – including a couple crucial ones that helped the Bengals outscore Montclair 8-2 over the final 3:39.
Bloomfield (1-0) was paced by standout Grace Connor’s 23 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks, along with Aicha Naouai’s 13 rebounds.
Connor started off her season in impressive fashion, scoring seven points within the opening 1:20 as Bloomfield jumped on top to an early 9-0 lead.
Overall, Bloomfield shot the ball exceptionally well (18-for-39, 46.2 percent), but Montclair’s pressure defense proved very effective all night, forcing 22 turnovers, and it kept the Mounties close until the final minutes.
Jennings, who was tasked with guarding Connor, did a fine job of chasing the Bengal star around the perimeter and earned four steals for her trouble. Tahj Ballard and Lea Antoine each had three steals apiece.
“The effort we gave on defense tonight, I’d sign up for that every night,” Palek said. “Jill did a great job against [Connor], who’s a great player and got them started early. But I thought we dominated the perimeter, did a nice job forcing turnovers, and it felt like most of our offense came off of fast breaks.”
After Bloomfield started off on a 9-0 run, Fede scored nine in a row to tie the score, but Bloomfield then went on an 11-0 run to take its largest lead of the season.
Montclair then dominated the next period of the game, forcing eight turnovers in 13 possessions. On the other end, Wiggins began to heat up, and her layup and a later free throw gave Montclair its first lead, 21-20, early in the third quarter.
The rest of the third period saw the teams trade baskets, with Bloomfield ending up on top, 30-29. Fede then drilled a high-arcing 3-pointer, her third of the game, to tie the score, 32-32, with 5:45 to play in the fourth. Bloomfield retook the lead on a Connor free throw and Raquel Pelata’s jumper, but a Wiggins fast-break layup pulled Montclair within 35-34 with 3:39 left.
But the cold shooting night continued for the Mounties, who missed eight of their final nine shots as Bloomfield pulled away.
Montclair is back in action this Tuesday, Dec. 20, in their Super Essex Conference-American Division opener at Nutley. Tip is slated for 4 p.m.