The four words are written at the bottom of the dry-erase board inside the locker room, but unlike the other instructions that Head Coach Marlon Sears has outlined for the Montclair State men's basketball team, these are in capital letters.
These words are everything.
“THIS IS OUR MARCH!”
The calendar reads February 16, but for the University's two basketball teams, that’s a lie. For Sears and his counterpart with the women's basketball team, Karin Harvey, this is their March Madness. This is the biggest game of the year – unless, that is, they survive to play another one.
And another one …
And another one …
As the women’s team has done repeatedly in the last several years.
This is the start of the New Jersey Athletic Conference Tournament, the first postseason event on the calendar. This is a win-or-go-home moment, a single game for both teams that will help define how they view the entire season that preceded it.
That both teams – with players who are friends, classmates and cheerleaders for each other – will play back-to-back at the Panzer Athletic Center? That makes the afternoon perfect. Before it is over, the several hundred fans who pay their $5 to fill the bleachers in Panzer will witness two intense games that will go down to the final minute.
They will see one wild postgame celebration that spills out into a stairwell and continues all the way down to the locker room. They will see one player screaming on the floor after dislocating her shoulder, only to pop it back into place and return to help her teammates.
They will see the joy that comes from a buzzer-beating victory that raises the hopes of an entire program, and the tears that flow after one of the most impressive streaks in the athletic department's history comes to an unexpected end.
They technically won’t go on to see March Madness, not this year. But they will experience Montclair Madness. And, for one crazy afternoon, that is every bit as good.
‘Win or go home’ time
It is 10:50 a.m. If you didn’t know that a basketball doubleheader was about to take place here, you wouldn't find many signs to tip you off.
Mike Scala, the University's longtime sports information guru, sets up the scorer's table and plugs in the microphone. A few employees and students unfold chairs along the sideline where the players will sit. A visiting women’s lacrosse team from RPI, here for an afternoon scrimmage, is having brunch in the gymnasium lobby.
The College of New Jersey, the team that the third-seeded Montclair State men will face in this first round NJAC Tournament game, has yet to arrive. And, inside the tiny locker room that he helped raise $25,000 to renovate, Coach Sears is pacing as he gets ready for a program-defining moment.
The banner on the gymnasium wall tells the story: Only once since 1982 has the men's basketball team won the NJAC title. Sears, in his fourth season at Montclair State, is determined to change that.
“They know that, at this stage in the season, it’s win or go home,” Sears says. “There's so much riding on this. Only 64 teams in the nation make it to the Division III (NCAA) Tournament. We want to be one of them.”
Sears knows all too well the razor-thin margin that separates the teams that get there and the teams that don't. A year ago, his Red Hawks lost in the NJAC semifinals when a controversial technical foul call helped Ramapo force overtime. The league sent the University a letter acknowledging a refereeing mistake, but for Sears and his players, that mea culpa was too little, too late.
He gathers his players in the locker room at 12:43 p.m., with just 17 minutes left until tipoff. The song “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees is playing on the sound system as the players arrive, hardly a current popular tune among college students. But it’s a fitting one for the young men in the home-team uniforms.
“For the next one hour and 45 minutes, you play tough and you play with passion,” Sears tells them.
He doesn't have to make a big speech about what's at stake. They know. Myles Mitchell-White, a sophomore guard from Trenton, is chosen to call out those four words on the white board – “THIS IS OUR MARCH!” – as he and his teammates piled in around their coach.
Mitchell-White doesn't know it then, but in just two hours, Montclair Madness would engulf him in a memorable way.
A fight to the end
The game is the back-and-forth battle that everyone expects. TCNJ takes an early lead, but Montclair State rallies before halftime. The Red Hawks go up by as many as 10 points in the second half, but the Lions aren’t ready for their season to end, either.
The game is tied at 65 with the final minute ticking down. One 3-point shot by the Red Hawks misses, then another caroms off the rim. Both times, the home team fights to get the rebound. Sears calls time out with 19 seconds left and draws up a play to put the ball in his leading scorer’s hands.
Mitchell-White has a choice: He can dish to a teammate or take the ball to the hoop himself. When the defense shifts to stop him from passing, he drives to the hoop and pulls up for a fall-away jumper with 1.2 seconds left.
It hits nothing but net.
A final heave from TCNJ misses and Mitchell-White finds himself at the bottom of a pile on the Panzer court, ecstatic about the biggest basket of his college career but also a little worried. It gets a little hard to breathe.
“I wasn’t expecting that at all,” Mitchell-White says, as the team heads to the locker room. “I’m just glad my teammates and I are happy. I love the support they have for me and I'm glad we had a chance to celebrate together.”
Upstairs in the gym, the onlookers are still buzzing about the incredible finish. A dozen of them, though, must put aside their excitement in a hurry and get on the court to warm up. It is time for Harvey and her players on the women’s team to go to work.
Playing with heart
Harvey is no stranger to the pressure that comes this time of year. Few coaches in Division III women's college basketball have had more success over the past few seasons than Harvey, who has turned the NJAC Tournament into an annual Montclair State coronation.
Dating back to 2012, the Red Hawks have played repeatedly in this tournament. Twelve times they walked off the court victorious in playoff games. They added six NJAC championship trophies to the Panzer case over the course of that unprecedented run.
Sears, perhaps her biggest fan in the athletic department, puts it this way: “They’re going to name this court after her someday.”
But this season is different. With only one senior on the roster, the Red Hawks struggle down the stretch and fail to earn a first-round tournament bye. It is hard to call it a rebuilding year – what coach, after all, wouldn't want to “rebuild” with a third-place finish? But the expectations are different.
“They sense it. They feel it,” Harvey says. “This time of year has been a big part of our culture in this program.”
The opponent: Kean. And, right from the start, Harvey knows her team is facing an uphill battle. The Cougars take a 10-point lead, scrapping for every loose ball as the Montclair State coach paces in front of her team's bench.
“It’s all rebounding. It’s all rebounding. It’s all rebounding,” she tells her players.
The Red Hawks trail by as many as 16 points as the hopes for bookend Montclair State victories seem to fade. Then came a furious rally with senior Domonique Wirsing leading the way. The score is tied at 51.
Harvey looked toward the rafters and smiled.
The joy doesn't last as one of her players is on the court, writhing in pain, after a collision with an opponent. It is Kim Calloway, a sophomore guard from Morristown. The gym goes quiet except for her screams, and after she is helped off the court, it seems clear that the Red Hawks will have to play on without one of their key players.
They fall behind again. Kean is looking to pull away. Then, harkening back to a famous moment in New York Knicks history, Calloway comes running out of the locker room with a brace on her shoulder.
She’d popped it back into place to rejoin her teammates.
“Here comes Willis Reed!” Scala says from the bleachers, referring to the New York Knicks player who returned to play in the 1970 NBA Finals with a torn thigh muscle.
A nail-biter, and a look to the future
The team, however, cannot write that fairy-tale ending. Taylor Brown, a sophomore guard from Trumbull, Conn., hits a 3-pointer with a minute left to cut the Kean lead to just 2 points, but the visitors hold on for the win.
This time, it is another team celebrating on the Panzer court. This time, it is Harvey’s players wiping away the tears as they make their way through the handshake line. Their season is over.
“I’m very proud of them,” Harvey says, recalling her message to the team. “I thought we competed for 40 minutes. We played the type of basketball we wanted to play. Sometimes, the result just isn't what you want.”
“This time of year has been a big part of our culture in this program.”
Harvey, now a brilliant 263-80 in 12 seasons at Montclair State, is facing an unfamiliar situation. The calendar is about to turn to March, and for the first time in six seasons, she won't have a team to coach.
That's the other side of this time of year. As the men move on to the next round of the NJAC Tournament, the women will have to wait for another shot at Montclair Madness a year from now.
Panzer is empty again as the clock ticks toward 5:14 p.m. Another day in the most exciting time of the year for Montclair State's college basketball teams has come to an end. But, all around the country, the Madness is just beginning.
Editor's note: The Montclair State men's team saw their season come to an end in the NJAC Tournament semifinals with a 95-86 loss to Rowan. The Red Hawks finished 17-10. In May, Sears accepted a job as an associate head coach at Columbia University.