By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
When Janitza Aquino graduated from Kearny High School two years ago and headed to Montclair State University to play basketball, she never could have dreamed how incredible her basketball career would become.
Plain and simple, Aquino, who was the 2010-2011 Observer Female Athlete of the Year, is living a dream. She’s the starting point guard for the Red Hawks, who are currently undefeated at 18-0 and ranked No. 11 in the entire country among NCAA Division III women’s basketball programs.
“I was actually just playing around before the season and I said that this team was going to do something great,” Aquino said after the Red Hawks defeated Rutgers-Newark Saturday night, 68-48, to improve to 18-0. “It’s a goal for us to be undefeated, but no one expects that to happen.”
However, the Red Hawks are now just six wins away from a perfect regular season.
“It’s really special,” said Aquino, who had 15 points in the win Saturday. “To be undefeated at this point, to be ranked, it’s really an awesome feeling. And that I’m a big part of it is incredible.”
Aquino, the former Kearny High three-sport (soccer, basketball and softball) standout, has started in all 18 of the wins, averaging 10.7 points and 3.2 assists as a sophomore at MSU.
Her responsibilities increased immensely when the starting point guard Jenny Malone, went down with a season-ending injury.
“When we knew that Jenny wasn’t going to be able to play, I had a sit-down with Coach (Karin) Harvey and the rest of the coaching staff and they told me pretty much what to expect this year,” Aquino said. “I had to focus more on offense. I needed to score more.”
Aquino played in 27 games a year ago as a freshman, averaging 4.4 points per game coming off the bench.
But that all changed with Malone’s injury. Aquino had to work on all aspects of her game in order to hold a place in the starting lineup.
“I did a lot of work on the little things,” Aquino said. “I had to look to score more, a lot like I did in high school. It’s different going into the college experience.”
The Red Hawks’ fast-paced style of play, both offensively and defensively, were beneficial to Aquino, who likes to get on the floor and run.
“I was limited in what I could do last year, but this year, I definitely feel like I’m a better player,” Aquino said. “I am shooting the ball better from the outside. I worked on my shot a lot. Plus, we play with a style that no one else plays. No one can try to do what we do. It’s always a battle. We also have a team with such great chemistry. That also helps.”
What also has helped the Red Hawks is the addition of two key players – Nicosia Henry, a transfer from Seton Hall, and freshman Shalette Brown. The two give the Red Hawks a distinctive Division I feel, because Henry once played at that level and Brown more than likely could have.
“To have a freshman like Shalette has been a major help, because she can dominate,” Aquino said.
Brown had eight points in Saturday’s win.
Henry’s addition has been tremendous, as she set a new school record, recording 12 steals in the win Saturday, while adding eight points.
“With the type of defense she plays, she gets us all more energized and gets us going,” Aquino said.
And after Henry gets steals, the Red Hawks are off and running, turning the basketball game into a track meet.
“We really do a great job of getting out on the break,” Aquino said. “And it’s so much fun. The chemistry really helps there. We all get along so well. That makes it fun. We run the floor. We push the ball. We have such fast players that we’re so hard to defend. It’s fun being able to play that way. It makes us unstoppable.”
The Red Hawks were good last season, posting a 19-8 record. But nothing like this undefeated bunch. This is like a runaway freight train, with a local standout acting as the conductor.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” Aquino said. “The coaches did a great job in recruiting and getting great players to come in and play with us. It shows in every game.”
So can the winning ways continue?
“I definitely hope so,” Aquino said. “It’s what we’re shooting for.”