Last year, Timber Creek’s girls basketball players were the hunters. They entered the Tri-County Conference Bracket A Tournament as a sixth seed, feeling somewhat underappreciated and disrespected in South Jersey girls basketball circles, even after an impressive 8-3 regular season.
The Chargers, in poetic fashion, promptly knocked off the number three, number two and top-seeded teams, in that order, while on the road to capture the first-year tournament’s title.
This year, they were the hunted: The Chargers entered the 2021-’22 iteration of the tournament as the top seed. The players got both a first-round bye and a target on their backs as they pursued a title defense that followed a 15-5 record going into their semifinal round game against Kingsway.
Thanks to a 28-point championship win over Kingsway – followed by a 49-38 win over Clearview – the Tri-County Conference Bracket A Tournament title will stay in Sicklerville for at least another year.
The team’s pathway to consecutive titles, second-year head coach MollyAnne Light said, didn’t feel much different with regard to its seeding and where the Chargers played their games. The most notable difference, instead, was the team’s complete overhaul of its own offensive system during the latter half of this season, an attempt to achieve a more sustainable and well-run play style moving forward.
“Winning the tournament, no matter how you do it, always feels the same … It’s a great feeling,” Light said. “I would say this year it feels a little different, because we’ve been really working on kind of changing our game during the second half of the season.”
The change, she added, was necessitated by the absence of the team’s starting center at the beginning of the season. With that loss, Light focused on developing a play style that would allow the offense to better control the ball at its own pace, while having more girls involved in scoring.
“Everybody had to step up and play new roles, and it took us a while to adjust, so I’m really proud of the effort and execution and the effort that they’ve been putting forward week after week,” Light said.
The change in play style required freshman Nai’La Bennett to more often bring the ball up the floor and call plays for the Chargers, while senior Amaya Burch, arguably the MVP of the Tri-County Conference this season, took some different positions on the floor.
The change was difficult to adjust to at first, but it has helped the team develop what it believed to be a more robust, versatile system moving forward.
“We changed up our whole entire style of play,” Burch said. “It was tough getting it started at first, but with how we feel now, it’s calm and collected. We take our time; we don’t let the opposing team dictate how we’re going to play. We set our own pace.”
“It took some getting used to,” she added. “It was super weird at first, I admit, but everyone is still playing their game how they’re comfortable in a more controlled system that limits our turnovers.”
Despite being a freshman, Bennett started the season on the floor for Timber Creek and didn’t hesitate to get going, scoring 19 points in the team’s first game of the season before dropping back-to-back games of at least 20 points later in the season before the team went ahead with the change in offensive philosophy.
Despite giving the team’s scorekeeper plenty of work during games, Bennett was still getting acclimated to the high-school level during the first half of the season. After she was more comfortable, the recent switch allowed her to become more vocal and a vital part of the offense’s flow.
“It feels good [to be a bigger part of the game plan],” Bennett said. “In the first half of the season, I was quiet and not as involved in that kind of stuff. But more recently, I’ve opened up more, I’m directing people where to go and helping just get everybody involved.”
The mentality and work ethic Light has brought to the program in the just two years she’s been with Timber Creek has been invigorating. The former college coach wanted a team of girls who feel, train and play like a family. The program’s numbers have reached recent highs, due to Light’s decision to not cut those who come out for the team.
In return, her team has bought in fully and made Timber Creek one of the most dangerous teams in South Jersey. All the credit, Light said, belongs to players such as Burch and Bennett.
“[Bennett] has raw talent and her fundamentals are off the charts,’’ the coach said. “It just took her a little bit of time to get that confidence on the floor that we trust everything to go through her on the court and that she belongs to be here.
“[Burch] can play anywhere on the court and it’s been good to see her adjust to playing anywhere like that, which tells me she’s ready for the next level.”