“I joke with her that we need her to play more like LeBron than Kobe. We need her to get the smart points.” — Northeast coach Phil Monastra on leading scorer Lauren Willis
As a coach, Phil Monastra never wants to lose a game. That said, he’s hoping an earlier, crushing defeat gave his players the wake-up call he felt they needed.
Monastra, the first-year head coach of the Northeast High School girls basketball team, watched his team blow an 11-point fourth quarter lead on Jan. 9 against Samuel Fels. The Vikings led 31-20 with about four minutes to play before the Lady Panthers ripped off the final 15 points en route to a stunning victory. It was an upset for sure, but maybe one the Vikings needed to re-install the killer instinct they had displayed by winning three of their first four games to start the season.
“In that game, the offense didn’t run the way I had hoped,” Monastra said. “We had a ton of turnovers and we didn’t move the ball around as well as we usually do. It cost us the game, and it was the wake-up call we needed. I told them to take ownership of it, of their team, their game and their mistakes. It hurt them deep inside to the point where they didn’t want to have another showing like that.”
So far, for the most part, the Vikings have responded. Save for a 57-28 loss to Central (which hasn’t lost to another Public League foe all season) on Jan. 15, Northeast has gotten back to basics. For the Vikings, the basics mainly revolve around junior captain and leading scorer Lauren Willis.
Against Fels, Willis hoisted 20-plus shots, something Monastra does not want. In a perfect world, the coach said, his star player would take roughly 14 to 15 shots per game and would spend the rest of the game crashing the boards and dishing to open teammates. Northeast’s success hinges on other players — namely forwards Jackie Hagen and Lovely Accilus — getting involved in order to keep the defense from focusing solely on Willis.
“It’s Lauren’s benefit to dish the ball around to keep the defense at bay,” Monastra said. “I joke with her that we need her to play more like LeBron (James) than Kobe (Bryant). We need her to get the smart points, as well as the rebounds and the assists to be at her best.”
Two days after the loss to Fels, the Vikings upended Girls High, 45-44. In that game, Willis put up 25 points on 14 shots and also chipped in with nine rebounds and six assists. In last Friday’s 38-21 win over George Washington, Willis had 19 points and seven rebounds in a game her team led 24-8 at halftime.
“When things are going well for us, Lauren is driving to the basket and looking to create, whether it’s her own shot or looking for a teammate,” Monastra said. “I want to see her maximize her looks by taking high-percentage shots. It’s a trickle-down effect; when Lauren is playing with confidence, the rest of the team usually is too.”
The continued emergence of players like Hagen and Accilus have paid dividends for Northeast. Last season, the team didn’t have much of a post game to speak of, mainly because the forwards weren’t prepared or accustomed to the quick passes that Willis would zip their way when she put the ball on the floor. After working on this exhaustively in the offseason, the Vikings are converting more high-percentage layups down low if Willis misses a shot, or opts to pass to a teammate when the defense collapses around her.
“This season, there haven’t been any of those sudden passes that we haven’t been able to handle,” Monastra said.
Monastra also lauded his team for making his transition to a full-time head coach easier. Despite having just one senior on the roster in Accilus, Monastra inherited a roster full of experienced, smart players from former head coach Rich Kirk.
The biggest benefit of working with a team full of players with “high basketball IQ’s,” as Monastra called them, is that they can make offensive and defensive adjustments on the fly. On a young team, Monastra would have to waste precious timeouts during the flow of the game to fix what isn’t working; now, he said, his players do that for him.
“I have to give a ton of credit to Coach Kirk, because he transferred his huge playbook and high basketball IQ onto them,” Monastra said. “He worked with them every single day, so I knew I would have a talented team that knew what they were doing. I realize they’ll make mistakes, but they can overcome them with the talent they have. I’m elated I have players like this because they’ve made my first year as easy as possible.”
Now, the focus shifts toward the playoffs. At 5-3, the Vikings expect to be there. They just hope any and all clunkers, like the Fels game, are a thing of the past.
“As a coach, you always have a laundry list of things you’d like to improve upon,” Monastra said. “But regardless, I’m happy with our situation. For the most part our players are healthy and they play hard and never quit. If they play as hard as they can and never give up, then I’m fine.
“We want the best from them, both athletically and academically. Our expectations for them are much more than just the X’s and O’s on the court, but as human beings going forward in life. I want them to be proud of what they do, and take ownership whether they win or lose. Fels was a wake-up call so they can move forward. I like our chances, and we’ll just go from there.” ••
Sports Editor Ed Morrone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or firstname.lastname@example.org