MONTCLAIR, N.J. – Thirty-five years after the future Hall of Famer Carol Blazejowski led Montclair State to the first AIAW Final Four, the undefeated Red Hawks are knocking on the door again.
Not only is Montclair State (29-0) just four wins away from the NCAA Division III national title, it has beaten the odds to get there.
While coach Karin Harvey had a good core returning from last year's 19-7 team, there were obstacles.
There was only one senior in forward Taylor Jeffers. Returning point guard Jenny Malone suffered a major knee injury before the first scrimmage and was lost for the year. And the NCAA announced in October that New Jersey schools were banned from hosting championship tournament games because of the state's attempt to legalize sports gambling.
Still, they prevailed.
Montclair State will look to advance to the national quarterfinals on Friday night when they take on Christopher Newport (28-2) in a game in Indiana. Washington University of St. Louis (22-5) will face host and top-seed DePauw (30-0) in the other third-round game.
"We had no idea they would click, even off the court as they have," Harvey said this week. "The team chemistry is phenomenal. They are like a family and when that happened, it was the perfect storm. You have good athletes, good basketball players, good people and it really came together."
The Red Hawks' statistics are eye-popping. Their average winning margin is 28.6 points and no team has finished closer than 13 points. Among their wins is a 77-34 decision over Widener, another team still in the Sweet 16.
"I think it might have been the first time we were like: 'Wow! We're pretty good," Harvey said of the Widener game. "We were very nervous going into that game. I remember doing pre-game with my coaching staff and saying 'Let's get our end-of-game plays ready.' They are an excellent basketball team and they're in Sweet 16. After that game we felt if we can play like this, we're going to be pretty good."
In the NCAA tournament, they posted a 40-point win over Regis in the first round and knocked off host Lebanon Valley 71-51 in the second round.
Had it not been for the NCAA ban against games in New Jersey — the NCAA lifted it this week after a federal court put an injunction on sports gambling in the Garden State — Montclair State would have been the host for those games.
"I think in sports you are always going to have obstacles or challenges and it's about how you look at it," Harvey said. "You can take being an underdog and you turn that into your motivation. We sort of refer to ourselves as the road warriors now. They have kind of adopted that now. That's part of who we are. That's part of the challenge. Not only are we going to win, we are going to win on your home court.
"I think when we played Lebanon Valley at Lebanon Valley, we were thinking how great is this going to be? Not only should we be playing home, but we're going to come in here and beat you with our game on your home court and then we are going to do it to someone else."
Players downplay the importance of the NCAA sanctions.
"We knew couldn't control certain things," said sophomore Melissa Tobie, who leads the Red Hawks with a 14.4 scoring average. "All we can control is what we do on and off the court, and I think everyone has been responsible both on and off the court doing what they need to do to get ready and prepare themselves for games. That's all we can worry about."
Other people have to worry about Montclair State. They play an up tempo, pressing game that would give some Division I team problems.
Jeffers, who is averaging 11.8 points and 6.4 rebounds, has no doubt that Red Hawks can win the national title. That's something Blazejowski failed to do in losing to Ann Myers and UCLA in the national semifinals in 1978.
"I think we have a very good group of people besides the fact that we are playing well," Jeffers said. "We have a very committed group of girls. We're very young, being I'm the only senior and we have a few juniors. It's mostly sophomores and freshmen and it's rare that you will find young underclassmen who are willing to put so much work that we've put in."
One of the big surprises for the Red Hawks this season was the ability of sophomore Janitza Aquino to move from the shooting guard to the point after Malone tore her anterior cruciate ligament. Like all five starters, she is averaging in double figures scoring (10.6), is second on the team with 81 assists and 21 3-pointers. She rolled her ankle last weekend but is expected to be ready Friday.
Freshman Shalette Brown (10.6 points, 6.7 rebounds) and Seton Hall transfer Nicosia Henry (10.0 points, 6.9 rebounds) round out the starting five.
"This team is exceptional in a lot of ways, but their focus is unbelievable," Harvey said. "For being as young as they are, they are very capable of going one game at a time. We haven't had a game this year where I have been disappointed in their focus or effort."