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.
“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.” ••