The fast and the furious: Palmyra girls basketball clawing its way to the top

The Panthers bolted out to a 17-1 start this season on the back of a fast, exciting brand of basketball.

Ashanti Taylor looks up at the hoop as she prepares to take a shot during the Panthers’ 47-28 win last Wednesday. Taylor has been Palmyra’s leading scorer this year, averaging 12 points per game.

One of South Jersey’s smallest high schools is home to one of this season’s most exciting girls basketball teams.

While larger schools such as Cherokee and non-public powers such as Bishop Eustace and Paul VI have earned most of the headlines so far this season, Palmyra has been a dominant force among the small schools in the region. The Panthers’ 47-29 win over Florence last Wednesday was their 16th in a row and pushes the team’s record to 17-1. Only Cherokee and Trenton Catholic have a better winning percentage in South Jersey this season than Palmyra.

“I thought we were going to be good, not 17-1 good though,” senior Ashanti Taylor said following last Wednesday’s game.  “This is a really good season. I didn’t even expect it.”

Not only has Palmyra accomplished one of the region’s longest win streaks of the year, but they’ve done so while playing a brand of fast, aggressive and exciting basketball. The Panthers play a ferocious, swarming defense where multiple players converge on the ball once it gets anywhere close to the hoop. Once they gain possession, Palmyra’s favorite thing to do is go on a fast break or throw a long pass down the court to an open player for easy points.

Olivia Falicki leads the Panthers on a fast break in the fourth quarter.

“We love to run,” Taylor said. “We don’t like slow-paced basketball. We like fast-paced basketball. We like running up and down the court, rebound, sprint down the court, try and get the ball.”

Palmyra has been building to a successful 2019-2020 season since last year, having returned nearly its entire roster from an 18-10 team that advanced to the South Jersey Group 1 semifinals a year ago. After a strong finish to last season, head coach Sean Brady felt this year’s team was capable of taking a huge step forward.

“They got a ton of experience last year,” Brady said. “The girls played a lot together over the summer. They work well together and they share the ball.”

It’s one thing to have a roster of players who are familiar with each other, but Palmyra has the extra advantage of featuring players who have known each other for most of their lives. In a small town of a little more than 7,000 people, everyone tends to know each other, and senior Julianna Mackafee believes that has been a good thing for the girls basketball program.

“I feel like, growing up with each other and playing together, we’re just confident in each other,” Mackafee noted. “We don’t take everything too seriously and have fun on the court.”

Julianna Mackafee leads Palmyra up the court during last Wednesday’s 47-28 win over Florence. Mackafee is one of the Panthers’ top defenders, averaging 3.4 steals per game.

“This is definitely one of the tightest groups (I’ve coached),” Brady added. “They have fun together. It makes practice fun. They joke with each other. They know when to be serious. It’s good chemistry.”

That tight chemistry also has allowed multiple players to shine this season. Taylor has been the heart of Palmyra’s offense since she stepped on the court as a freshman. She’s averaging about 12 points per game so far in 2019-2020 after leading the Panthers in scoring in her freshman and junior seasons.

Palmyra’s Elizabeth Shover tries to hang on to a rebound.

Taylor is far from Palmyra’s only threat. Junior Elizabeth Shover has become a force inside, averaging more than 10 points and nearly nine rebounds per game. Mackafee and junior Olivia Falicki have spearheaded Palmyra’s suffocating defense, with each of them averaging 3.4 steals per game to lead the team.

“It’s more about us working together,” Taylor said. “It’s not just one player. On any given night, anyone can be the leading scorer on our team.”

Mackafee believes the team’s ability to work as a unit and its bond could make a difference  heading into the final stretch of the regular season. Just a few days before the cutoff for playoff seeding, Palmyra was on track to earn one of the top two seeds in the South Jersey Group 1 playoffs. That seeding could earn the Panthers a few home games in March as well as a lot more attention from opponents across South Jersey.

“We know we have a big target on our back,” Mackafee said. “Every day we know everybody is coming after us, so we have to keep it up.”

“We just have to outwork everybody,” Brady added. “Record doesn’t matter. We’re just going to work harder, whether it’s practice, whether it’s layup skills, whether it’s foul shots.”