With 22 wins and trips to both the Hudson County and North 1, Group 4 tournament semifinals this was arguably the greatest season in the history of Kearny girls basketball.
That unprecedented success made its ending all the more painful. On Saturday, the Kardinals went up to rival Union City and led for most of the game before ultimately falling short, 35-28.
Kearny tied a school record for wins as it went 22-7 and unlike the first two times they faced Union City, head coach Jody Hill felt her team had the better of play for most of the game, which “is why it stings extra hard,” to go home in the semis.
“If I’m being completely honest, the Union City game had to be one of the most disappointing losses of my coaching career for the sole reason that we had the lead for the majority of the game and the girls executed the game plan just about as perfect as I could have asked them to,” said Hill about the conclusion of her 28th season as Kearny head coach. “We just had a few crucial turnovers and missed a couple of open looks that we needed to hit.
“We were so close to going to the final of the state section and just came up short. However, it does not take away from the effort that the girls put forth. We couldn’t be happier with how hard they played and how much we’ve improved throughout the season.”
Despite the unprecedented success, it was hardly the smoothest of seasons for the Kardinals. Before practice even began, senior forward Julia Araujo, the team’s top defender, was lost for the season due to a devastating knee injury suffered at the end of the girls soccer season. Another senior starter, Natalie Osorio, saw her season end prematurely due to injury.
Even with those losses, Kearny went 12-3 over its final 15 games, a stretch which the Kardinals make the county semifinals for the first time and saw star seniors Ava Hyams and Maci Covello score their 1,000th points.
Kearny began its state tournament run as the No. 4 seed in the North 1, Group 4 section tournament. In the opening round, a 50-38 win over Ridgewood, it was Covello, who last week committed to continue her career at Felician University, who dominated with 24 points and 12 rebounds. Hyams also had a big game with 10 points and 10 rebounds, while freshman Marel Ruiz had the best performance of her young career with 11 points, six rebounds and four steals.
It was Thursday night’s quarterfinal against Columbia, where the Kardinals’ resilience was on full display in front of a full bleachers at Kearny’s home gym.
Trailing by five with a minute left in regulation, Jocelyn Huancaya drove to the basket for the and-one, cutting the deficit down to two. The defense then forced a turnover, giving Kearny a chance to tie the game and keep its season alive. There, with three seconds left, Covello found Jazlyn Villanueva under the basket for the game-tying layup.
“There has never been any quit in this Kearny squad,” Hil said. “When we were down five with a minute remaining there wasn’t one head down, feeling like the game was over. Everyone believed we were going to win because they knew that our journey wasn’t over yet.”
In overtime, Villanueva hit a 3-pointer to make it a two-possession game and free throws from Hyams and Huancaya closed out the 48-44 victory.
Even with the graduation of Covello and Hyams, Hill knows that this team’s run has raised the bar for the program. She hopes the atmosphere and excitement from it creates the interest that allows Thursday night to become more of the norm in future years.
“We got the town to come out and care about basketball. They were invested in this team and these kids. The support was amazing and so much appreciated,” said Hill. “I told the team you gave the fans something to cheer for. This was a squad that was fun to watch. People came to the games knowing there was always a chance Kearny could beat anyone they were on the court with and they wanted to be a part of the experience.
“We graduate a heck of a lot of talent in Maci Covello and Ava Hyams but the returning players and new players now know how great it feels to be a part of a special run. This is where we always want to be moving forward and will always be ready to work as hard as we have to in order to get there.”
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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 (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)