Initially, New Jersey City University (9-2, 7-2 NJAC) and Montclair State (8-2, 8-1 NJAC) had been scheduled to face off in the NJAC Tournament Championship Game at the Panzer Athletic Center on Friday, March 19. However, COVID-19 protocols forced the game to be postponed and moved to Saturday, April 3.
The No. 1 seed in the tournament, Montclair State, was looking to win their seventh NJAC Tournament title. On the flipside, the Gothic Knights were competing in their first championship game in program history. During the regular season, the Red Hawks swiped both games against NJCU.
Displaying no rust at all, the Gothic Knights led 13-8 at the end of the first quarter. In the second quarter, NJCU extended the advantage to double-digits at 22-11 with less than six minutes remaining in the half. Montclair State responded late in the quarter with an 8-1 run to trim the deficit to 25-22 and heading into the locker room down, 27-22.
The tandem of freshman guard Nahjeemah Holmes and senior guard/forward Dayjah Anderson led the Gothic Knights with eight points apiece in the first half. Sophomore guard Nickie Carter came off the bench to tally eight points for the Red Hawks.
"Lately, I have been more of a shoot first and drive later but coming into this game, I wanted to win and had to be more aggressive and drive more," Anderson explained.
The Gothic Knights bumped the margin back up to 33-25 before Montclair State ignited a rebuttal with a 6-0 run to narrow the gap to 35-34 with less than five minutes to go. Holmes continued to flourish on the offensive end, netting nine additional points that led to an 8-2 run and 47-39 NJCU lead. Limited to three points in the first half, freshman Damaris Rodriguez warmed up by dropping seven points. By the time the third quarter ended, the Gothic Knights were up 50-41.
"We talked about the third quarter being the most important quarter in basketball, and we had to come on," Rodriguez explained. "Even though we were winning, we had to come out, that's what we did, and I had to start making my shots."
Early in the fourth quarter, the Gothic Knights expanded the margin to 55-44. NJCU capitalized on second-chance opportunities and crashing the glass to grab offensive rebounds. Leading 60-50 with less than three minutes remaining, it appeared the Gothic Knights were on their way to a win when the Red Hawks stormed back with a 7-0 run.
Stepping up in the clutch, senior forward Ayanna Lewis converted a lay-up with 42 seconds left to make it 62-57. Montclair State refused to throw in the white towel as senior guard Taylor Brown canned her fourth trifecta of the day seven seconds later.
With the shot clock dwindling in the closing seconds, it was Holmes that would turn out to be the hero for NJCU. After taking control of the ball, the freshman drove to the basket for a lay-up off the glass to make it a 64-60 game with nine seconds left. As the buzzer sounded, signaling the end of the game, the Gothic Knights players streamed onto the court in a jubilant celebration.
Holmes totaled 19 points while Lewis contributed 13 points. Rodriguez chipped in with 12, and Anderson added 10 points. Nickie Carter poured in 24 points and Taylor Brown provided 17 in a losing effort for Montclair State.
NJCU shot 43 percent from the floor, outrebounded the Red Hawks 44-30, finished with a decisive edge in points in the paint (40-18), and limited Montclair State to 32 percent shooting.
Head coach Pat Devaney on the NJAC championship title for NJCU ...
"I'm just in shock," Devaney said postgame. "It's a real feeling for me and I'm extremely excited for our kids who worked their tails off today to be legends and make history. None of this happens without having a great administration and a support system. There is no better feeling for NJCU, Jersey City and Hudson County. The only better feeling was seeing my son and this is probably the second happiest time of my life, and very grateful for this opportunity and be able to be coaching these amazing student-athletes."
For Devaney, it's about his players ...
"Nahjeemah (Holmes), I call her the ace of spades, Nahjeemah has an amazing story, and she is an amazing player. She loves the game of basketball and flat out can play the game. I told Nahjeemah, if we're going to win, you have to be on attack mode all game long, and she listened, and lay-up ended the game, and she took us on her shoulders."
"I want to say Dayjah (Anderson) is one of the most passionate players I have been around; sometimes passion looks like aggression to the unmotivated, and she's the heart and soul of this team, and without her, there's no way we would be here."