Enjoying the ride

Despite a narrow defeat in Sunday’s Public League championship game, Northeast High School celebrates a rewarding season of girls basketball.

  • She’s super: Lauren Willis was Northeast’s leading scorer in her senior year, one that saw the Lady Vikings go 17-4 and win the Class AAAA Public League championship over Central. TIMES FILE PHOTO

  • Despite losing Sunday’s Public League championship game, Northeast will play Archbishop Carroll for the District XII Class AAAA title on Wednesday. The Lady Vikings are also guaranteed a spot in the state playoffs, with a first-round game scheduled for March 7.

  • Making it count: Six of Northeast’s seven seniors, from left: Sayonnah Kofa, Jacqueline Hagen, Ciera Nimmons, Briyah Hill, Tahira Vance and Zahirah Barkley. Not pictured is senior Lauren Willis. Northeast fell to Imhotep in Sunday’s league title game. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

Phil Mon­as­tra drew up the game plan, and his team ex­ecuted it to near per­fec­tion. When the fi­nal buzzer soun­ded and the North­east girls bas­ket­ball team ended up on the wrong side of the score­board, the Lady Vik­ings’ head coach wasn’t angry about the res­ult.

When you get this far, el­ev­at­ing your game to a cham­pi­on­ship-caliber level, the un­for­tu­nate fi­nal­ity of things is that there must be a win­ner and there must be a loser; but on this team, there were no losers, just a group of girls who brought a school so rich in ath­let­ic his­tory to the cusp of a new prom­ised land.

“This was the game I was hop­ing to play,” said Mon­as­tra, stand­ing on Broad Street out­side Temple’s Liac­our­as Cen­ter fol­low­ing North­east’s 41-38 loss to Im­hotep Charter in Sunday’s Pub­lic League cham­pi­on­ship game. “Un­for­tu­nately, it just didn’t turn out the way we wanted on the last pos­ses­sion. I told them (the play­ers) to keep their heads held high. Most people, they didn’t even give us a shot when they heard we were in this game, and now I think people un­der­stand what we can do and bring to the table. I have noth­ing but pride in their per­form­ance.”

North­east had got­ten to this point by de­feat­ing rival and di­vi­sion front-run­ner Cent­ral in last week’s Class AAAA title game, a first for the pro­gram. Mon­as­tra said he wasn’t aware of the last time the girls bas­ket­ball pro­gram com­peted for an en­tire league title, and poin­ted out the fact that the boys team hasn’t won one since 1929. Point is, with so many teams in the league scattered across a hand­ful of dif­fer­ent di­vi­sions, it’s dif­fi­cult just to even get to this point.

Very dif­fi­cult.

“We won the AAAA cham­pi­on­ship, which we haven’t done be­fore,” he said. “We got to the Pub­lic League cham­pi­on­ship game, which isn’t something we’ve done as far as my re­col­lec­tion goes. And we were with­in three points. They should carry that around with them with their heads held high. Get­ting to that cham­pi­on­ship and beat­ing Cent­ral for once meant so much to these girls. Everything after that game has been gravy … ex­tra.”

North­east entered Sunday hav­ing won 17 of its 20 games on the sea­son, in­clud­ing the 80-58 thump­ing of Cent­ral in the Class AAAA title game, fol­lowed by a 40-point thrash­ing of Park­way West in the semi­finals. 

The team hung tight with Im­hotep throughout, even when the un­der­sized Vik­ings had to tangle with Im­hotep for­wards Bionca Dun­ham (10 points, 16 re­bounds) and 6-foot-1 cen­ter Ash­ley Mur­ray (an Iona Col­lege com­mit), who scored sev­en points to go along with an eye-pop­ping 21 re­bounds. The first half was a de­fens­ive struggle, with North­east lead­ing 8-6 after one and trail­ing 17-11 at the break. Lauren Wil­lis, the Lady Vik­ings’ seni­or lead­ing scorer who had been av­er­aging 25 points per game in the play­offs, struggled migh­tily with her shot early on, as did Im­hotep guard Deja Reyn­olds, a Temple sign­ee who was ter­ror­ized by North­east’s de­fense in­to an 0-for-14 shoot­ing per­form­ance in the first 16 minutes.

“Their bigs get a lot of re­bounds and put­backs, but our girls fought ag­gress­ively all game long,” Mon­as­tra said. “I knew they (Im­hotep, now 22-2 on the sea­son) could put up big num­bers real fast, so I didn’t want to get in­to a shootout with them. The plan was for us to drive in­to the lane more, but that didn’t work to our ad­vant­age.”

As a res­ult, North­east was a jump-shoot­ing team most of the game, which didn’t help giv­en that the Liac­our­as Cen­ter, as a col­legi­ate ven­ue, has a deep­er three-point line than the high school play­ers were ac­cus­tomed to. Im­hotep built a nine-point lead after three that soon swelled to 11 in the fourth. It ap­peared that Mon­as­tra’s group had run out of gas.

But then Wil­lis’ (15 points) shots star­ted fall­ing, as did those of team­mates Tahira Vance (12 points) and Ci­era Nim­mons (10 points), and North­east slowly chipped away. The Lady Vik­ings seized mo­mentum in the fourth, get­ting to with­in three points with pos­ses­sion at the end, but the game’s fi­nal shot clanged harm­lessly off the rim, al­low­ing Im­hotep to cel­eb­rate and North­east to trudge off the court, won­der­ing what could have been. 

“It is hard, com­ing up short,” Mon­as­tra said. “We have a great group, and I looked for­ward to most of their seni­or years to see them flour­ish. I’ve seen them grow as bas­ket­ball play­ers, as adults. They’ll all add to the rich alumni tra­di­tion here, but it will be hard to say good­bye come June when they’re walk­ing off the foot­ball field at gradu­ation.”

Mon­as­tra has sev­en seni­ors in all, and per­haps the most ex­cit­ing part about com­ing this far is that his time with them is not done yet. By vir­tue of win­ning the Class AAAA title, North­east will play Arch­bish­op Car­roll on Wed­nes­day at Arch­bish­op Ry­an for the Dis­trict XII title. The Lady Vik­ings have already been guar­an­teed a trip to the state play­offs, with a first-round game sched­uled for March 7. 

So des­pite the loss, Mon­as­tra couldn’t help but smile, know­ing he had al­most two weeks left with his team. 

“Even though we lost today, for me to start think­ing already to next reas­on would be wrong,” he said. “I just want to en­joy this year and we’ll see how far this train takes us. The fo­cus is still very much on the now.”

And the coach takes a tre­mend­ous amount of cre­dence and val­id­a­tion be­ing able to ac­com­plish something so rare for a school that has been around forever. He hopes this is just the be­gin­ning of something spe­cial, and Mon­as­tra knows he will al­ways re­mem­ber this group as one of the truly spe­cial ones.

“I can be walk­ing the halls at North­east and see one of them, and we don’t even have to say any­thing … we just smile,” he said. “We know each oth­er in and out. Even if we lose a game, we just en­joy one an­oth­er. We ac­com­plished what we wanted to ac­com­plish. 

“We won the Class AAAA title and kept go­ing. Next year, we’ll re-tool, and it’s good for the un­der­class­men to have this ex­per­i­ence and draw from it, the im­port­ance of these games and what goes in­to them.” ••

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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