by Andrew Garda
What a difference a year makes.
The Montclair High School girls basketball team finished the 2021 season with four wins in a row, a 13-2 (11-0 SEC-Independence) record and a division title just a year after struggling to a 4-17 (0-11 SEC-Colonial) finish in the 2019-20 season.
Second-year head coach Ed Connell said there were two things that made a big difference this year.
First, the returning players came back fully committed.
“Even through all the COVID stuff, they were ready to play basketball and worked really hard all summer,” Connell said. “They were practicing anywhere they could, they got to participate in an outdoor league down in Maplewood, which I know was a great learning experience for them. They just stayed committed to it, and it shows. There’s a lot of growth out of each player that really worked over the summer.”
That growth showed itself in some major ways, as in junior Ayanna Brantley, who had 151 points after scoring 132 last season. It also showed in fellow junior Phoebe Sullivan, who had 77 points, 33 steals and a dominant 130 rebounds. And it showed in senior Karen Hankerson’s leadership.
“The seniors had 11 wins for their first three years, total,” Connell said. “Then to come out their senior year, they win 13 games, 13 of 15, and Karen really kept us on track. She’s one of our captains, and [she] means a lot to these kids.”
With the leadership from Hankerson, the work on the glass from Sullivan and the all-around quality play of Brantley, the Mounties almost never found themselves out of a game.
A loss to Cedar Grove was by just two points, and while they struggled against Paterson Eastside, they never backed down or gave up, even at the end of the 53-37 loss.
Part of that — and the second big thing for the Mounties — was the arrival of freshman phenom Morgan Marshall.
Marshall exploded onto the scene in the first game of the year, a 59-29 win over Shabazz where she scored 21 points and added 7 rebounds and 7 steals.
Marshall would average over 22 points a game, and led MHS in scoring with a mammoth 337 points.
That total didn’t just lead the Mounties, though. It led the entirety of the Super Essex Conference and was 40 more points than the second person on the list, Kiley Capstraw of West Orange. It was also good enough for thirteenth on the list for the entire state.
Marshall is more than just a scorer, though, Connell said, pointing to her team-leading 79 steals as well.
“It’s amazing how much of a basketball player that she is already becoming and how much she has added to our program already,” he said.
Marshall would hit career highs twice this season against Weequahic, first with 30 points in a 60-35 win on March 1 and then in a 52-46 win on March 5, when she dropped 32.
She was one of three MHS players in the top 15 in steals-per-game average for the SEC this year, with the freshman sitting at third with 5.5 a game, Brantley at seventh with 4.9 per game, and Hankerson at 12th with 3.7 per game.
In many ways, both Marshall and Brantley have been perfect compliments to each other. Marshall’s prolific scoring freed Brantley up to continue to improve her game and do more things off the ball, while Marshall gained from the experience Brantley has as a third-year player.
With those two returning — as well as Sullivan, who had the 11th-most rebounds in the SEC this year, and Elsa Taylor-Lillquist, whose 20 blocks was 15th-best in the conference, this Montclair team is loaded looking toward next year.