An 18th birthday is pretty special in its own right, and Chibuzo Amonu won’t ever forget hers.
She celebrated the day after she helped the Ewing High School girls basketball team win the Central Jersey Group III state championship.
“It was an early birthday present,” said the Ewing senior. “It was perfect.”
The top-seed Blue Devils pulled away from second-seeded Neptune for a 65-52 win March 7 for their first sectional championship since 2000, when Amonu celebrated her first birthday.
“It’s very crazy,” Amonu said. “I’m still reflecting on it how unreal it feels, like finally getting the sectional title, finally accomplishing something. We haven’t done that since 2000.”
Ewing ended its season with a heartbreaking 58-57 overtime loss to Ocean City two days later, but their CJ III title got them over a huge hump. Last year, it was Neptune that knocked out Ewing in the sectional semifinals. In 2015, it was Middletown South that stopped them in the semifinals. Ewing fell in the first round in 2014.
“Reflecting back on my years, the first three we would get so close and something was just not connecting,” Amonu said. “This year, something just clicked and we hopped that hurdle. We finally got that sectional title.”
Ewing used a balanced attack to top Neptune. Kiyla Peterson had 15 points and six assists, Mya Grimes had a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds, Jaycee Lowe had 14 points, six rebounds and four assists, Denia Campbell had eight points and three assists, MyAsia Jackson had a basket and six rebounds and Cayla Sexton had four points and three assists while Amonu nearly had a double-double with eight points and 10 rebounds.
Ewing used a 20-9 advantage in the second quarter to take control and never let Neptune back in it. They made history with the win.
“I think it’s big for the kids,” said Ewing head coach Mike Reynolds. “There is a deep history with Ewing basketball, both on the boys and the girls side. Every group wants to try to be a part of that and live up to that. So we certainly talked to them about that as the season wore on. I think they took a lot of that to heart and wanted to make their own imprint when it comes to what happens with Ewing girls’ basketball.”
To finally break through as a senior was especially gratifying. Amonu will be a thrower for the Monmouth University women’s track and field team next year, but basketball has been a big part of her Ewing athletic career. She also played tennis for Ewing. Amonu has been a part of the program since she was a freshman, and finally saw it come together this year.
“I think overall as a team we were more connected,” Amonu said. “Previous years, we had people but I felt we just weren’t all on the same level. This year we were united. We had goals in mind and we conquered them.”
Ewing came close to another major goal, reaching the Mercer County Tournament final before losing in the final seconds to West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North. They avenged that loss to WW-P North in the sectional semifinals.
“It was just a matter of learning how to play through adversity and understanding that we were capable of winning games in different ways,” Reynolds said.
She added that the county final was a tough game, but it taught the team that it needed need to close things in the fourth quarter, especially taking care of the ball and making make foul shots.
“We really learned that lesson in the sectional tournament and that helped us get through, especially in the West Windsor North game and then the Neptune game,” Amonu said.
Ewing had to turn around quickly after the county loss to begin the state tournament. They were able to refocus quickly for the sectional.
“I feel like a sectional title is worth more than a Mercer County title,” Amonu said. “It would have been great to get that, but I feel like we used that loss for momentum. We kept our heads up through that tough time which also helped us stay together as a team.”
Amonu was happy to be able to contribute more in her final season as a Blue Devil. Just a shade taller than Grimes, she was tasked often with covering opposing team’s tallest players. Her points and her rebounds per game tripled this year. She recorded double-digit rebounds in four of the last five games, and has always valued rebounding above scoring.
“She’s talented and did a great job,” Reynolds said. “She’s kind of a leader by example where she’ll just get in and listen and learn and really work hard to get the most out of herself in an effort to make the experience better for the team. She’s been a steady worker since she was a freshman and it kind of culminated in her being a very effective starting center for us this year.”
Amonu is turning her focus now to track, where she already holds the school record in the shot put of 40-feet-10 inches. She will be going for the discus record as well this year. It would cap quite a start to 2017 for her.
‘For the last seven years or so, each group has found a way to better what happened the year before.’
She’s also confident that Ewing will have a good chance to do big things again next year. Amonu, Campbell, Sexton, Tiahnna Bell and Maylissa Clarke graduate. The returning players have an understanding of what it will take to win after finally returning a sectional to Ewing.
“We had been stuck at the sectional semi for a couple years,” Reynolds said. “To the kids’ credit, they pushed right through and got the sectional final done. Now next year when they come back, can we do that again and get through that hurdle of getting through the semi if we’re playing well enough to get there?”
Reynolds knew this year’s group had the talent, depth and skill to win a championship. He won’t forget how this group became the first in 17 years to win one, and came quite close to reaching a state final.
“I’m definitely going to think about the looks on their faces when they won the sectional because that was a big moment they all enjoyed,” Reynolds said. “I think they’re going to enjoy looking back at that too.”
He’s also going to look to the future too. “For the last seven years or so, each group has found a way to better what happened the year before. Are we going to able to get back in the gym and improve to the point where we can make another run at it next year and possibly go a step farther?”