Northeast, Willis continuing on road to success

In good hands: Led by the high-scor­ing, of­ten dom­in­ant Lauren Wil­lis, North­east’s girls bas­ket­ball team sits at 5-3 on the sea­son. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

“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 em­or­

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