There was no way possible that the Lincoln High School girls’ basketball team could come close to duplicating what was accomplished last year, namely winning an NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II state championship.
The Lions lost Daniya Darby, the three-time Hudson Reporter All-Area First Team honoree who averaged 17 points and 11 rebounds per game last season. And the Lions lost standout point guard Alaisha Mumford, the two-time Hudson Reporter All-Area selection who was a Second Team pick last season, averaging 13 points and nine assists per contest.
The Lions were 24-6 last season, but losing such firepower and star power to graduation would surely lead to a drop in the team’s production this season, right?
Senior guard Tymira Miller wanted to hear nothing of the sort.
“I told my teammates that we needed to all get on the same page,” Miller said. “Sure, it was going to be harder, not having Darby and Mumford, But I felt like we could make the same history. It was going to be really hard.”
Veteran Lincoln girls’ basketball head coach Tommy Best also knew that his team was in a little bit of a bind.
“We knew we couldn’t replace Darby,” Best said. “That was impossible. But what we did realize is that we had some pretty good outside shooters. We just needed to find someone to handle the ball. We were going to have a different mindset, going from a team that looked inside to having good outside shooters.”
But like every basketball team, a point guard is necessary. And Best thought it would be best if Miller filled that role.
“She’s the leader of the team,” Best said. “I needed her to run the offense.”
At 5-foot-9, the lanky Miller wasn’t a prototypical point guard. In fact, she was a little reluctant to the position change from small forward, where she played last year.
“I really didn’t like it,” Miller said. “I wasn’t used to it.”
However, Miller stuck with the new gig and started to feel a little more comfortable.
“I kind of grown into it,” Miller said. “Coach Best gave me a lot of confidence that I could handle the ball.”
Best had faith in Miller.
“She is so athletic,” Best said. “She causes matchup problems because she’s so tall. She’s fast and tall and can dribble. I knew she could handle it.”
Miller knew she had to step up her game in a hurry.
“We lost two big pieces from last year,” Miller said. “As a senior, a lot of it was up to me.”
Miller said that there was a lot of preparation going into the season.
“We stayed in the gym a lot,” Miller said. “There were a lot of long nights in the gym, shooting shot after shot. We were on the foul line practicing all night.”
Miller took to her new role flawlessly, averaging 10 points, five rebounds and five assists per game.
Best knew that he didn’t have a deep roster.
“We only had six varsity girls all season long,” Best said. “We had a total of 14 girls on varsity and JV [junior varsity] combined. I don’t know why we didn’t get more players to come out, but we didn’t. It was definitely a trying year.”
Best knew that the experiences that his team had playing both in a highly competitive summer league and another league in the fall would pay dividends for his inexperienced team.
“I think the summer and fall leagues were important because we got to see what we had and what we needed to work on,” Best said. “I think those leagues gave them confidence.”
The emergence of Tiyanni McClary also helped the cause. The 6-foot-1 McClary, who averaged six points and four rebounds per game last year, exploded this season, averaging 11.6 and almost seven rebounds per contest.
“She kept teams honest with her size and power,” Best said.
Senior Briana Davis also stepped up her game immensely. The six-foot Davis scored just a total of 25 points all last season, but she came back this year to average eight points and seven rebounds.
“She improved her game so much over last year,” Best said. “She’s a senior, but she’s only 16 years old. She can also shoot from the outside.”
Senior guard Alisa Colon played a big part in moving the basketball.
“She is always a good ball handler,” Best said of Colon. “She has good ball handling skills and can shoot pretty well.”
But the turning point came when junior forward Shakira Coar became eligible after some academic difficulties.
The 5-foot-9 Coar turned the Lions from a mediocre middle-of-the-pack squad to a state title contender once again.
“We had to wait for her to come back,” Best said. “We had to hold the fort until we got Coar back.”
Even Miller knew that Coar was an important cog.
“She’s our main shooter,” Miller said. “She filled a piece of the puzzle that was missing. Her coming back changed the whole team.”
Coar played 14 games, averaging 12.5 points per game. Since Coar returned to action, the Lions lost only five games – three to Hudson County Tournament champion Bayonne and two to runner-up Hudson Catholic.
The Lions also called upon role players like senior guard Ciarra Stevens and junior forward Yassmine Murphy to aid the cause, but Murphy has now been lost for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee.
“We lost six games this year to teams that were ranked in the Top 20 in the state,” Best said. “I think that got us ready for the state tournament. I think those games helped us become a better team.”
As for winning, Best won’t compare one year to the next, although this state title and trip to the overall Group II title game against Manchester Township Saturday in Toms River is quite an accomplishment. The Lions’ 42-30 win over Westwood in the overall Group II state semifinals gave the Lions 20 wins – again. No one in the world expected that.
“I think they’re the same,” Best said when asked to compare seasons. “Last year, we had to go on the road a lot. I know a lot of people didn’t think we would give it a thought of challenging for a state championship. I think this is just as rewarding as the last one.”
This one didn’t have the sure-fire All-Area studs. This one didn’t have the county’s best inside player and one of the best point guards.
But the Lions are there, headed to Toms River to play for an overall Group II state title, something no Hudson County team has done since Harrison won in 1991. That’s almost 30 years.
“It feels different,” said senior Miller, the leader of the pack of Lions. “I played a bigger part in this one. It feels better, because most people thought we wouldn’t be able to do anything without Darby and Mumford.”
Present company included. It’s not a bad feeling at all to be proven wrong in stories like this.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com, follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar and listen to the Hudson County Sports podcast. This week the special guest is former Harrison girls’ basketball coach and athletic director Jack Rodgers. You can listen to the podcast on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.