Kearny’s Aquino, Harrison’s Lucas playing big roles at MSU, now 20-1
By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Janitza Aquino cannot comprehend that four years have passed since she left Kearny High School to play basketball at Montclair State University.
“It has definitely flown by,” Aquino said. “It’s like I just got into Montclair yesterday and now it’s coming to an end. I’ve really enjoyed every year.”
“It went fast,” Montclair State head coach Karin Harvey said. “I’m happy for Janitza and the career she’s had with us. I’m so proud of her. She’s improved every year. It’s amazing how much her game has improved. She’s played some great basketball for us.”
The Red Hawks own a 20-1 record and No. 10 national ranking among NCAA Division III schools, thanks in part to the play of Aquino, the 2011 Observer Female Athlete of the Year recipient, and to the play of another local talent, namely sophomore guard Rayven Lucas of Harrison, who has played a bigger role this season with the Red Hawks.
Aquino has been a mainstay with the Red Hawks since her sophomore year. She is currently ranked among the top 10 scorers in school history with almost 1,300 points. This season, Aquino is leading the Red Hawks in scoring, averaging 15.8 points per game to go along with nearly three assists and three rebounds.
“She wasn’t a 3-point shooter when she came here,” Harvey said. “But she has worked on that aspect a lot and has become a very good shooter from the outside. She now holds all the school records for 3-pointers. What really has impressed me about Janitza is that she’s become a phenomenal leader. She takes the younger kids on her own and gets to know them well.”
Aquino believes that she has become a better player each year at Montclair.
“I’ve enjoyed each year and I’ve gotten better each year,” Aquino said. “These have been some of the greatest times in my life. I think each year I had to grow into a different role as a player. This year, I think the entire team just wants to keep improving. It’s not just me.”
Aquino has played both the point guard and off-guard slots this year in order to get freshman Kate Tobie more comfortable being a floor leader.
“I was always a point guard in high school, so I had to have the ball all the time,” Aquino said. “Now, I share the ball. Shooting was never my main thing, but now I can step out and shoot the three. I had to develop my game. Shooting was always a struggle, now it’s my main priority. I do what I can to help the team.”
One of the things Aquino has done in terms of helping the team has been the development of Lucas, the daughter of former Jets quarterback and current football TV and radio analyst Ray Lucas.
“That’s been one of the greatest things this year is watching Rayven develop,” Aquino said. “She’s up to learning new things. She knows I’m a senior this year and I was once like her. I’ve been in her spot before. She’s going to be a huge asset for this program when I’m gone. She’s learned all that she can. I’m just trying to do my part to help her learn. She’s always working hard.”
Lucas has seen her playing time dramatically improve this season. She’s averaging nearly two points per game and playing 10 minutes per game.
“It’s been like night and day since last year,” Harvey said of Lucas. “We all knew that Rayven had the athletic ability, but she still had a long way to go. She worked hard in the offseason. We gave her a list of what she needed to work on and she did that. It usually takes another semester for it to kick in, but she’s starting to do the things we want to see.”
“I worked on everything over the summer, shooting, ball handling, running,” Lucas said. “I hoped that my role would increase, because last year, I didn’t play much. I had to work hard and I’m glad that all the hard work I put in is finally paying off. I give Coach Harvey a lot of credit for giving me the chance to show I am a different player.”
Harvey likes Lucas’ improvement.
“I’m excited for her,” Harvey said. “She’s a nice young lady who comes from a great family. They all want her to be successful. She’s contributing to our team now and it’s only going to get better from here. She can continue to grow and develop. We need to get more kids like Rayven and Janitza.”
Lucas credits Aquino for her development.
“Janitza has really helped me a lot,” Lucas said. “I know that she’s leaving and there will be huge shoes to fill. I’m just grateful to help she has given me and it’s not just me, it’s everybody. She has the strength to lead us and she has the ability to find our weaknesses. We feel like we have a different connection because we’re from the same area.”
“I’m just trying to do my part,” Aquino said. “I’m trying to help on the floor and off the floor.”
Aquino will receive her degree in criminal justice in the spring. She doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life after graduation.
“I might want to come back to Kearny and become a police officer,” Aquino said. “I’m already doing my internship with the campus police here, so we will see what happens.”
Lucas knows that her final two years at MSU will be much improved thanks to her hard work and the tutelage she has received.
“This was just a stepping stone for me,” Lucas said. “There’s always room for improvement. It’s an honor to be part of this great team, highly rated, nationally ranked. It’s been a lot of fun.”
“We went to the Sweet 16 my sophomore year and the Elite Eight last year,” Aquino said. “So this year, we’re gunning for the Final Four. I couldn’t ask for a better scenario here. It’s been a privilege to be a part of something so great. A lot of people dream about what has happened to me. I got to share it with my family, my friends, my teammates. We have a great team and we’re all focused on the same goal, which is winning.”
Hopefully, the winning will continue all the way through March.
“I want to go all the way,” Lucas said. “With Janitza here, this is her year to do it. We have to do it.”
There’s no stopping Montclair State’s West Hudson connection.