CAMBRIDGE — That the Cambridge Indians have returned to the State Girls Basketball Tournament is a remarkable achievement considering all of the turnover from a year ago.
Winning 23 of 24 games this season with a starting lineup of four sophomores and a freshman, plus a first-year head coach, makes it even more remarkable.
Add in the fact that the Indians won six postseason games without their injured starting center, and it becomes clear that this is no ordinary playoff run, or team.
“It feels awesome because we were able to make it back to the state final four, but we have a completely different team this year,” sophomore point guard Sophie Phillips said. “So it feels awesome that we could accomplish the same goal.”
“I think we knew right along that we could probably at least compete for a sectional title again,” first-year coach Bob Phillips said. “That was evident as the season progressed, you saw us gaining confidence and we saw that we were as good as or better than most Class C teams in our section. Beyond that, you never know.”
Cambridge, ranked second in the state, is scheduled to face fourth-ranked Maple Grove (21-3) in the Class C state semifinals Friday at 3:15 p.m. at Hudson Valley Community College. A win would put the Indians in the state championship game, set for Saturday at 7 p.m. against either defending champ Millbrook (20-2) or 2017 winner Watkins Glen (20-4).
The Indians reached the state semifinals last year, losing to Millbrook 56-52 in an agonizingly close game that ended Cambridge’s season at 25-2. While the Indians lost five seniors to graduation, they returned the Phillips twins, Sophie and Lilly, and center Fiona Mooney — all sophomores this year — as starters.
“Last year wasn’t a surprise, but we weren’t expecting to go this far (to the state semis),” Mooney said. “This year... we had higher expectations for ourselves. We are a different team, and a lot of us were on the team last year, so we’re more experienced at playing at this level.”
“It is gratifying because I’ve seen firsthand how hard they worked and how much experience they did gain from last year,” Bob Phillips said. “That experience is invaluable for a young team, and I think it drives you to want to get back there.”
Mooney’s return from a broken wrist that she suffered last month is huge for the Indians. The 5-foot-11 post player was cleared to play on Monday. Until then, Cambridge had missed her solid presence in the paint, where she can score and rebound, but got solid efforts from Brecke Gifford, Lilly Phillips and McKayla McLenithan in her place.
“When she came back the energy in the gym was sky high,” Bob Phillips said. “She’s just been champing at the bit to get back, and her teammates are ecstatic that she’s back.”
“At first it was hard to be on the sidelines, but now I can play, and we’re in the state final four, which is amazing,” Mooney said. “I’m so proud of my team.”
The Indians are a balanced team with everyone playing a role. They feature a fast transition offense that is sparked by quick defense and passing, and finished off by sharp outside shooting and drives to the basket. Sophie Phillips (16.8 points per game) and Lilly Phillips (15.7 ppg), both 5-11, are the primary scorers and outstanding defenders. Freshman Stasia Epler and sophomore Ruth Nolan can also knock down shots from outside.
“The whole team has stepped up huge, especially in moments when everyone needed to,” Sophie Phillips said. “We can count on anyone on our team to make any play at any time because no one’s afraid to step up, which has helped us all year.”
“Looking at Cambridge, we’ve got our work cut out for us,” Maple Grove coach Bill Price said. “The Phillips girls are very impressive — they’re like spiders on the court, all arms and legs. Their length will cause us problems on defense, and they create problems with their speed in transition.”
Maple Grove, from the far southwestern corner of the state, is making its first-ever appearance in the girls basketball final four, after winning its first Section VI crown since 2000. Cambridge defeated Maple Grove in the Class D state football championships in 2016 and 2017.
The Red Dragons have double digit scorers in junior Bre Hill (12 ppg), senior Courtney Hemminger (11 ppg) and senior guard Marisa Schuppenhauer (10 ppg).
“Defense has been our hallmark — it takes a lot of pressure off of us on offense if we can hold teams in the 40s,” Price said.
“They’re similar to us in terms of size, and they get up and down the court well,” Bob Phillips said. “They’ll certainly be a team that pushes us and hopefully we can push them. I think we’re going to challenge each other, and whoever makes the most runs and gets the most defensive stops is going to win.”
Mooney said the Indians’ even-keeled approach to each game should serve them well at the state tournament, despite the team’s overall youth.
“As a team, even when we’re down, there isn’t tension,” she said. “We know, yes, we have to keep working to catch back up. But even when it’s a tense situation, we keep our composure really well, and we seem to play with the same mentality no matter what.”