|Samantha Famulare, who transferred to TCNJ from Division II Florida Southern, is one of seven players averaging at least 7 points a game for the new-look Lions.
Photo by Jon Lambert, TCNJ athletics
By Sarah Sommer
Last year TCNJ entered its final regular-season game against Rutgers-Newark needing to win to guarantee itself a spot in the NJAC playoffs. The Lions lost, falling into a three-way tie for sixth place in the conference standings. Rutgers-Newark won the tiebreaker and, with it, the final NJAC tournament slot.
This year, TCNJ does not need to beat Rutgers-Newark on Wednesday. But the Lions will probably win anyway. After all, they’ve been doing that a lot lately.
One year after going 11-13, 8-10 in the NJAC, TCNJ is 19-5, 14-3 in conference and has already locked up not just a conference playoff spot but also a first-round bye. The Lions earned the bye with a 62-59 win over then-No. 22 Montclair State (20-3, 15-2 NJAC), the only team ahead of them in the NJAC standings, on Saturday. The Red Hawks fell out of the Top 25 this week due to that defeat.
In avenging a 54-51 loss at Montclair State from Jan. 13, TCNJ made a strong statement on Saturday. But it was an earlier victory, the Lions’ 65-47 win over Stockton on Nov. 29, that showed TCNJ head coach Chessie Jackson just how special her team could be.
That game “really sent a message to me about how much this team cared about competing,” Jackson said. “That’s one of the things that we talked a lot about in the preseason was building competitiveness on the team. And Stockton’s a really good team, and they came into our gym, and I just saw this light go on with the team that we’ve got to work really, really hard to win every game, and we rebounded the ball like crazy that night. And I think that was probably my turning point where I was like, ‘Wow. This team wants it.’”
Jackson, in her first season at TCNJ, is one of several new faces helping the Lions. Sophomore forward Jen Byrne, who missed most of last season after tearing the labrum in her right shoulder, has been another key to TCNJ’s success. She leads the team with 17.8 points per game.
In TCNJ’s season opener, a 65-62 loss at York (Pa.), Byrne scored a career-high 35 points. She shot 12-for-20 from the field, 4-for-6 from three-point range, and 7-for-7 from the foul line.
“That was one of the best games I’ve ever played in my life,” Byrne said. “It was a good confidence-booster to know that I came back stronger, mentally tougher, and ready for the year.”
Byrne has scored 20 or more points in eight games and has scored in double figures in all but three contests. In the Lions’ 87-77 win over Rowan on Jan. 31, she had 30 points, making 10 of 23 field goals and all 10 of her free throws.
“At the end of a shot clock, she’s the one we’re looking for,” senior point guard Charlotte Schum said.
Byrne scored 17 points in the win against Montclair State on Saturday. Another new team member, junior transfer forward Samantha Famulare had a team-high 20 points that day.
Schum and TCNJ’s other two seniors--forwards Nikki Schott and Chiara Palombi--have provided crucial leadership this season, Jackson said. All three are captains. Freshman forward Shannon Devitt, who averages 9.7 points and 9.4 rebounds per game and has 10 double-doubles this season, has been a major contributor off the bench.
With Montclair State and TCNJ as the top two seeds in the NJAC playoffs, they may meet for a third time this season in the conference championship game. The Red Hawks have won the past five NJAC titles, but the Lions--picked to finish sixth in the league in the preseason coaches poll--have shown that they can exceed expectations.
For now, Jackson is not thinking too far ahead.
“I'm trying to approach this and approach it with the team as, let's see who we have and let's do what we can to prepare for them,” she said. “If it's Montclair, it's Montclair, and I'd be pumped for that. So we'll see.”