Teamwork, dynamic defense lead No. 6 Poly girls basketball back to state semifinals

Poly’s No. 6 girls basketball team doesn’t have a dominant offensive player and the Engineers really don’t care.

They’re all about defense. Inflicting chaos on the opposition’s offense creates scoring opportunities for everybody on the court, an approach that has the Engineers in the Class 3A state semifinals for the sixth time in seven years.

As the Engineers (21-4) prepare for Thursday’s 9 p.m showdown with No. 7 Long Reach (20-2) at Towson University’s SECU Arena, they continue to hone a defense that has led them to Baltimore City and regional championships, a few upsets and some near-misses, including a 58-54 loss to No. 2 McDonogh.

Janya Lilly, a junior guard and one of few players back from the 2016 state-finalist team, feels the Engineers have been underestimated this winter because they don’t have a marquee player.

“I think everybody doesn’t understand that we play as a team,” Lilly said. “Everybody always thinks that it’s one person that carries everybody, but we have multiple people.”

Sharing the ball is never a problem, she said.

“Outside of basketball, we make sure we have a nice connection, so we are all friends,” Lilly said. “We all can talk to each other about anything, so when we go to the court, we all have trust in each other to play as a team.”

Engineers coach Kendall Peace-Able, who played at Poly, has always emphasized the relationships that develop those strong connections. Along with the speed, quickness and skill of the Engineers, their chemistry is the foundation for a dynamic defense.

“That’s one of the things I learned very early,” Peace-Able said. “Poly is a very, very diverse environment and just because you have a team doesn’t mean that most of the kids are even alike or that they really think about the same things. They might just all be basketball players, so one of the biggest things we pay attention to at the beginning of the year is trying to establish relationships and trying to play for each other.”

Poly doesn’t draw the top players who usually opt for private school programs, so Peace-Able said her players have to work together to win — and they win a lot. This is the eighth team she’s taken to states in her 16 years and last week, she earned her 300th career victory in the sectional semifinal win over City.

“You get to groom people. You get to develop a champion. You get to pull things out of people that they don’t really know they have in them,” she said. “There’s a beauty in that. I get to really see people grow.”

With a starting lineup this winter that often includes four sophomores with another sophomore and a freshman quick off the bench, the Engineers have grown quickly.

They suffered their worst loss, 71-46, in a December holiday tournament against No. 3 Roland Park, but bounced back the next day to beat No. 13 Mount de Sales, 52-43.

On Jan. 20, they gave National Christian Academy a run before falling, 51-42, and then on Jan. 24 came close against McDonogh, which beat Long Reach by 35.

Peace-Able points to that two-loss stretch as a turning point even though a week later the Engineers lost their only Baltimore City league game, 60-52, to Western. They avenged that, 56-44, in the City Division I championship game and used it as a springboard to the 3A South regional title.

They had one scare in the playoffs, in the Section I final March 1 on the road at Oxon Hill, which went into the game 23-1 and ranked No. 12 by The Washington Post.

“As coaches, we were kind of worried,” Peace-Able said, noting that Oxon Hill had twice beaten a Largo team that demolished the Engineers by 30 points in a preseason scrimmage.

She chalked that up to having used the scrimmage as a learning experience to try new things, but Oxon Hill led Poly by 11 points with three minutes left in the game.

“In the third quarter, they didn’t see a shot they didn’t like,” Peace-Able said. “They were 3 or 4 feet behind the 3-point line and before I knew it, we were down by 11 and I was like, ‘I’m not ready to be done,’ so I called a timeout.”

The Engineers revved up their defense and turned the game around.

They pressed full court. Sophomore guard Jada Gross got hot with a 3-pointer from the corner and a layup off a steal. Junior center Gianni Jones hit free throws down the stretch and the Engineers escaped with a 49-43 victory.

Now, Poly faces another hot-shooting team in co-Howard County champion Long Reach, which has two 1,000-point scorers.

Lilly, one of the team’s top scorers along with sophomore forward Dasia Townes, said defense makes the Engineers confident but not overconfident as they aim for the program’s first state championship.

“It throws everybody off,” Lilly said. “They don’t know how to come at us, because it’s not one person to stop. You have to stop the whole team and that forces other people to try to play like us. It’s hard to stop us.”

katherine.dunn@baltsun.com

twitter.com/kdunnsun

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