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Fifth-seeded Columbia roared to a 58-41 win vs. 12th-seeded Verona in Saturday's Essex County Tournament first round behind a solid overall effort which included strong play from Cougars including Bella Galatt (13), while head coach Chuck Keegan kept his girls focused and veterans such as Shana Desir (35) and Talia Baptiste (1) had excellent floor games in addition to Galatt, who also gave strong effort guarding Hillbillies such as Cali Giacomazza (22). In the end, Leah Connell (42) and her teammates could enjoy the glow of a well-earned Round of 16 win. (Photos by Gene Nann-

Columbia Girls Still Seeking Rhythm
While Moving Into ECT Quarterfinals

By Steve Tober

MAPLEWOOD- Columbia coach Chuck Keegan likes to challenge his girls, even if it is done in the midst of seeing the team still come together as a whole following injuries and sickness throughout the first month-and-a-half of the season.

Still, the fifth-seeded Cougars are very much in the mix in the Essex County Tournament with eyes also on hopefully being a factor come NJSIAA state tournament time.

Following Saturday’s 58-41 first round win over 12th-seeded Verona, Columbia (7-11) has won only just three times in the past 10 games, yet Keegan is feeling optimistic about where his team can get to, at least in terms of quality of play, as the campaign winds down to its final month.

“We’re still trying to find our rhythm, what with the injuries and sickness we’ve had to adjust to, but the girls keep working hard and I think we’re finally getting everyone in place for the stretch run,” said the fifth-year head mentor. “We have a big challenge ahead next Saturday at (fourth-seeded) Newark Academy in the county quarters, but hopefully the strong schedule that we’ve faced so far will help us be as ready as we can be.”

At 7-11 overall and 5-4 in the tough Super Essex Conference-American Division, Columbia is not your average sub .500 team as it boasts some good experience from last season’s 14-8 squad (7-5 in the SEC-American) and there is some nice balance in the rotation as well.

Against Verona, senior guard Shana Desir led a balanced effort with 17 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocks and 3 steals, while her backcourt mates Talia Baptiste (13 points, 4 rebounds, 3 blocks, 5 steals) and Bella Gallat (10 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks, 5 steals) also had fine all-around efforts.

“Our guards were among those who played well and it’s good to have Baptiste back the past couple of weeks after she had to battle an early season knee injury,” said Keegan. “They can shoot the ball and penetrate to the basket and it does seem to be coming together for them out there.”

Junior Jaime Levi (7 points, 5 rebounds) and 6-foot senior Allie Harris (9 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks) also provided some solid floor play, and 5-11 junior Leah Connell is a difference maker defensively with the way she can protect the rim.

Against Verona in Saturday’s Round of 16 ECT contest the Cougars fell behind 10-9, but quickly restored order with a 16-5 edge in the second quarter and took total control with a 24-16 advantage in the third quarter.

“Verona was well prepared for us and they started off well against us,” said Keegan. “Our kids responded to what we asked them to do and they put together a nice effort the rest of the way to help us advance.”

In addition to meeting the likes of state-ranked teams Immaculate and University twice in SEC-American Division action this season, the Cougars have already embarked on an ambitious independent slate with early-season contests against St. Thomas Aquinas (58-48 Columbia loss, Dec. 18) and Pope John (56-23 setback, Dec. 29) in addition to most recently going up against two of Union County’s elite programs in Westfield (74-57 loss on Jan. 24) and state Top 10 team New Providence (44-35 defeat, Jan. 26).

“We had two-and-a-half good quarters against Westfield and then they started to hit some 3’s and separated from us,” said Keegan. “I thought we played some good defense against New Providence, but they are another good team.

“I like to challenge our kids and also let them know that we’re capable of playing with some really good teams and they have to keep believing in their abilities as we all want to best prepare ourselves for the state tournament.”

The week ahead includes a home conference game vs. Caldwell Tuesday night followed by a very tough challenge at Immaculate on Thursday in Montclair.

Then it’s over to Livingston next Saturday to face a solid Newark Academy squad.

“We’ve scouted Newark and they are well coached with some very good players,” said Keegan. “They deserve to be seeded higher than us and we’re going to have to play our ‘A’ game to beat them.

“Right now we’re all beginning to get some constancy together with more games under our belts together and I’m confident that the girls will stay focused on what is a big week ahead!”

NOTES- Verona, which has had a nice season to date under second-year head coach Brian Dorf, was led against Columbia by promising sophomore guard Cali Giacomazza with 12 points, including a pair of 3’s; senior Emily Baumgard with 8 points and junior Julia Loudon with 7. The Hillbillies also have a strong rebounding forward in senior Sabine Matta…Verona operates out of the SEC’s third division, the Colonial…Keegan, who had been a jayvee coach under Jazmine Wright for three seasons before taking the reins of the Columbia girls hoops program, is also a longtime football coach in Essex Coiunty, having once been the head gridiron mentor at Columbia for three seasons (2004-2006) and for the last several years has worked under coach Darnell Grant at both Shabazz and West Orange.     

Essex County Girls Basketball Tournament first round:
(9) Glen Ridge 50 (8) Caldwell 43
(5) Columbia 58 (12) Verona 41
(4) Newark Academy 51 (13) Bloomfield 25
(1) Immaculate 77 (16) Payne Tech 33
(2) University 84 (15) Cedar Grove 11
(7) Central 63 (10) Mount St. Dominic 35
(6) West Essex 43 (11) Millburn 37
(3) West Orange 51 (14) Nutley 31
ECT quarterfinals, Saturday, Feb. 3:
Glen Ridge at Immaculate
Columbia at Newark Academy
Central at University
West Essex at West Orange              

Follow Steve Tober on Twitter @Chattermeister

Veona's senior forward Sabine Matta (21) worked hard under the rim for the Hillbillies while her coach Brian Dorf looked to direct his team throughout their challenging contest with Columbia in Saturday's ECT first round where Cougars, including Talia Baptiste (1) and Jaime Levi (10), helped provide solid play over the game's final three quarters in win.

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