After historic county run, Kearny girls’ basketball turns to state tournament

Kearny’s girls basketball team made history last week when it made its first ever Hudson County Tournament semifinals. But the feeling of accomplishment as well the disappointment of its 52-35 loss to Bayonne this past Thursday are now in the past.

Less than 48 hours after that defeat, the Kardinals were back in the gym, to get ready to take on one of its other main goals – make a deep run in the state tournament. Kearny, the fourth seed in North Jersey, Section 1, Group 4, opens the tournament at home on Tuesday night against Ridgewood.

“Getting to (Hudson semifinals) was an accomplishment, we were happy to make a little history, but obviously we didn’t want to be satisfied with just making it,” head coach Jody Hill said. “We really wanted to try and make a run and go to the finals and have a chance to win a championship.

“It was disappointing that we couldn’t put four quarters together. I think we played a solid three, but the second quarter really hurt us. It took us a little while to swallow it and let it sit. But then (Saturday) we came back and had one of our best practices of the season. We’re looking forward to the state tournament and we just got to put (the county tournament) behind us and move on towards new goals.”

Bayonne, currently ranked No. 17 in the state by, had blown out Kearny twice in the regular season, but early on, Thursday’s third matchup appeared it would be very different. The Kardinals built up an early lead 9-6 with all five starters scoring a point in the seven-minute stretch.

But the second quarter told a different story as Bayonne’s press defense put Kearny’s offense in constant distress as the Kardinals committed 13 turnovers in the period, allowing Bayonne to build up a 13-point lead.

While Kearny only committed four turnovers in the second half, the damage had already been done as it was never able to get any closer against the eventual county champions.

Ava Hyams finished with 11 points and eight rebounds, while Maci Covello added nine points and eight rebounds. Jocelyn Huancaya and Jazylyn Villanueva chipped in eight and six points respectively.

“I think we all walked away from that game saying that if we took better care of the ball, we would have had a better chance to win,” said Hill. “Turnovers were our achilles heel.”

In Monday’s 51-41 quarterfinals win over Hudson Catholic, four players scored in double-figures, led by Hyams’ 19 points. Huancaya had a career day with 10 points, 12 rebounds and eight steals, and Olivia Covello added 11 points for the type of balance Hill knows they’ll need in the state tournament.

Monday was also Kearny’s 20th victory of the season, the first time they’ve reached that milestone since 2018. It’s an accomplishment all the more impressive knowing that five of its 26 games this year have come against teams against Bayonne and Union City, who is ranked No. 16 in the state and is the top seed in Kearny’s section.

“There’s something of a confidence knowing that we probably faced our toughest competition being in the league playing Bayonne and Union City. Five of our losses are against teams ranked in the Top 20 in the state,” Hill said. “From the beginning of the year I feel like we’ve gotten more competitive and better and better each game.”

While Kearny represents the best chance at a title among The Observer area teams, they are hardly the only ones enjoying historic success heading into the postseason.

North Arlington, which at 16-9 is enjoying its best season in more than a decade, is the fourth seed in North Jersey, Section 2, Group 1 and will face 13th-seeded Newark Tech. Junior Skyla Acosta has been a breakout performer for the Vikings, especially of late, averaging 12.8 points and 11.8 rebounds per game over her last four appearances.

In North Jersey, Section 2, Group 2, Lyndhurst (15-10) enters as the seventh seed and will face a familiar foe on Tuesday in Becton, who defeated the Golden Bears at the Garfield Holiday Tournament. Lyndhurst looks much improved since then, having won four of its last five as sophomore Asya Akar (11.8 points, 8.1 rebounds per game) and freshman Brooke Harper (7.0 ppg, 9.9 rpg and 3.5 blocks per game) are emerging as one of North Jersey’s best young front court tandems. Harper especially has been a game-changer in the paint, with four double-doubles in her last five games, averaging 12.4 points and 13.4 rebounds during that stretch.

In North Jersey, Section 2, Group 3, Nutley, which has had a difficult season, is the 12th seed and will travel to fifth-seeded Colonia on Monday. Better days are ahead for the Maroon Raiders as sophomores Isabel Riccardi and Grace Christie lead a young group in scoring. Belleville, which has enjoyed a nice bounce back this season at 14-7 is the 14th seed and faces third-seeded Millburn on Monday.

Bloomfield (11-13) is the 14th seed in North Jersey, Section 1, Group 4 and has the daunting task of traveling to Passaic County champion Paterson Eastside in the first round on Tuesday. Sophomores Ava Barker and Gabrielle Kot will try to lead the Bengals to the upset.

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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer

Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)