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Johnson's big day powers Shipley girls into FSL semifinals

02/03/2023, 11:00pm EST
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

No matter what happens the rest of the way, Ellen Bair has to feel good about her first season on the Main Line.

Ellen Bair (above) and Shipley are into the FSL semifinals after beating ANC on Friday. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

The first-year Shipley girls’ coach, who came to the Philadelphia area from Linden Hall School for Girls in Lititz (Pa.), took over a program with a proud history, winning four PAISAA state championships in the 2010s, though the Gators had lost the mantle of Friends’ League powerhouse to Westtown, with Friends’ Central and George School on the rise. 

But despite a couple coaching changes in a row, there was a good young core to build around, a trio of freshmen getting time a year ago as eighth graders, Shipley making it to the Friends’ Schools League semifinals before getting blown out by Westtown. 

Bair led the Gators to a 12-6 record (5-3 FSL) in her first regular season, and then got back to the semifinals with a 55-41 win over ANC on Friday afternoon. That sets up another match up with the top-seeded Moose, a tough draw for sure — but if this is as far as they get, Bair’s so far satisfied with the foundation she’s built.

“My first year, [to] make it to the playoffs. I feel happy about it,” she said. “We have a winning record this year, which is great [...] I feel good about it, good about the momentum, we only lost by three to Friends’ Central and only by six to George, so that means that we’re working our way up, which is what I was hoping for.”

The Gators are incredibly young, starting two sophomores, two freshmen and an eighth grader in their semifinal win; another freshman, starting point guard Taylor Lasky, was out with an illness for Friday’s win.

One of those freshmen, point guard Sanai Johnson, led the way with a career-best 27-point outing with nine rebounds, five assists and three steals, putting Shipley up 44-26 with 1:29 left in the third quarter on a four-point play, then hitting the final dagger, a triple to put the Gators up 55-39 with 1:25 left, erasing any final hopes of a crazy ANC comeback.

Sanai Johnson (above) had a career-high 27 points in the win. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Bair has actually been trying to rely less on those outings, she said, aiming for more of a balanced offensive attack, but she’ll take those big scoring days when it comes with the full complement of stats.

“Sanai has always been expected to be a scorer, and I’ve been really challenging her this year to do more,” Bair said. “To rebound, she leads us in assists, she leads us in steals, for a while she was leading us in rebounding [...] especially at our size, we need everybody to rebound, we need everybody to get steals and take care of the ball.”

Sophomore guard Anna Pascale had nine of her 14 in the first quarter, adding three assists, two rebounds and two steals; sophomore Mallory Farr had six points and four boards, with Rikai Williford (3 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks) and Sarah Liebman (2 points, 11 rebounds, two assists and two steals) showing up all over the box score.

It’s a fiesty group of guards, most of whom are under 5-6, that Bair has at her disposal, and she’s trying to turn that into a run-and-gun program; they took 22 3-pointers on Friday, a handful below their season average.

“I think that philosophy has changed in terms of we try to shoot as many 3-pointers as possible,” she said. “We usually shoot around 30 a game, so I think just changing our style to a bit more run-and-gun and we focus a lot on transition and shooting 3s in transition. 

“I try to have five shooters on the court at all times, just because I think while it’s difficult for us to guard people because we’re smaller, we try to make it difficult to guard us, too.”

“I think we have a lot of balance,” she added. “We’ve had six different people have a career high this year, so I don’t really think it’s like, if (Sanai’s) not playing well, we lose. It’s like, okay, well, somebody else is going to show up. Anna Pascale had a terrific first half, she was the one I felt like really kept us going for a while, just running all over the court. 

“(We’re) young, extremely young. I’m looking forward to seeing, in the future, who rises.”

Academy New Church (11-10) stayed in it with a dominant effort on the glass, led by junior wing Arianna Frank, who pulled down an incredible 24 rebounds, including 13 on the offensive end, adding in five assists, four steals and a block, as well as a single fourth-quarter foul shot.

The Lions also got a 19-point, 13-rebound double-double from junior guard Xola Wade, the only member of her team in double figures.

It was a tight game early, Shipley leading 21-16 after one quarter and 26-22 at halftime, but broke it open with a 20-6 third quarter, taking a 48-26 lead into the final period. ANC won the last stanza 13-9, but it never really felt like a comeback was in the making.

Anna Pascale (above) had 14 points for Shipley in Friday's win. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Bair, who’s working at Shipley as the school’s Sustainability Coordinator, grew up in Gettysburg, Pa., doing her undergrad years at Dickinson College, where she played as a sophomore after transferring in from Lebanon Valley. She spent the last three years as the head coach at Linden Hall, a boarding school in Lancaster County, where she coached a trio of Division I prospects, but found it hard to find comparable talent to put them against.

“The caliber of the talent that’s walking around is really fun,” she said. “We weren’t always playing a lot of Division I basketball players [at Linden Hall], I think we played four in my three years. We played four last week. 

“We play like seven on Tuesday.”

There’s no doubt that Westtown will be a formidable challenge for Shipley, the Moose led by Seton Hall commit Joniyah Bland-Fitzpatrick, Delaware commit Grace Sundback, standout juniors Zahra King and Savannah Curry and 6-1 eighth grader Jordyn Palmer, one of the most impressive young prospects in the area. 

Westtown took the previous meeting between the two teams, 86-34, at Westtown just last week, on Jan. 27. There’s no magic words Bair can impart to make up the significant size and experience gap between the two programs, just prepare her program to handle itself well in a difficult atmosphere and find something to feel good about. No matter what happens, they'll still play in the PAISAA tournament later this month.

“I think for me the message is just to be tough,” she said. “People will respect you if you play hard. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, people respect you if you show up and play hard and are a good teammate and show that you’re excited to just keep building. That’s what it’s about. 

“Obviously it’s a tough matchup for us, would have loved to have Friends’ Central or George, but I think it’s fun. I think it’s good for a lot of our young kids who have college basketball goals, to play against some of the best future college basketball players in the area. You want to play the best competition, because that makes you a better player.”

By Quarter
Shipley: 21  |   5   |  20  |   9   ||  55
ANC:     16  |   6   |   6   |  13  ||  41

Shipley: 20-56 FG (7-22 3PT), 8-11 FT
ANC: 17-68 FG (3-21 3PT), 4-17 FT

Shipley: Sania Johnson 27, Anna Pascale 14, Mallory Farr 6, Rikai Williford 3, Ani Proper 3, Sarah Liebman 2

ANC: Xola Wade 19, Te’a Richards 9, Oniya Osborne 5, Bre Molock 3, London Lynch 2, Jayda Mayo 2, Arianna Frank 1

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