ALBANY — The on-court success is nothing new for Lilly Phillips.
The level of play, surroundings and so much else?
Yeah, that’s all a bit different this season for the former Cambridge High School star who serves as the starting point guard for the NCAA tournament-bound UAlbany women’s basketball team.
“It’s sometimes hard to wrap my head around it just because of how crazy it sounds,” Phillips said Tuesday, three days before the 16th-seeded Great Danes play at top-seeded Louisville. “But I’m super-excited, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity.”
In high school playing for her dad Bob Phillips’ Cambridge program, Lilly Phillips teamed with her twin sister Sophie Phillips — now playing at Rhode Island — to help create one of Section II basketball’s best-ever runs. With the Phillips sisters leading the way, Cambridge produced an 81-4 record from the start of the 2017-18 season to the close of the 2020-21 campaign, and the program won three Section II championships, two regional crowns and a state title during those years — and, in all likelihood, would’ve won even more if not for pandemic-related restrictions that shortened the sisters’ junior and senior seasons.
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There’s a huge jump, though, from playing high school basketball to college basketball — and the leap Lilly Phillips made was a larger one than many. For postseason high school basketball in New York, teams compete based on size — and Cambridge High School competes in Class C, the second-smallest of the state’s five classifications for the sport.
But, as Section II products provide examples of every season, Division I players come from places and schools of all sizes. This season, the 5-foot-11 Phillips surprised many when she earned a starting role for the Great Danes, but the freshman guard — minus two games, due to injury — has never left head coach Colleen Mullen’s starting lineup as UAlbany’s season produced its first America East championship since 2017.
“We knew that she had a lot of potential,” Mullen said. “We thought she needed to get stronger — she was so skinny in high school — but she was just so tough.”
That toughness, plus a calm demeanor and her on-court skills, helped Phillips earn the starting spot in the Great Danes’ lineup that opened up when Kyara Frames transferred this past offseason to George Washington. UAlbany’s roster was short on natural point guards after Frames’ departure, and Phillips emerged as the top choice of the Great Danes’ coaching staff to take on the challenge of running the team’s offense.
“Coming in, right away, the thing that differentiated Lily was her ability to be coachable. She was a sponge,” said Mullen, who played point guard at New Hampshire and Rhode Island as a college athlete. “Everything that we coached her on, she would listen and then make adjustments to — and it’s really hard, especially as a freshman, to hear a coach say, ‘OK, do this type of pivot,’ or ‘Do this type of move,’ and [then] put it into action when you go live.
“And she was able to do that so quickly. She was able to separate herself in that way.”
Her confidence stood out, too. Mullen recalled Tuesday how there was a game this season in which she pulled the freshman from the lineup due to some turnovers, and the coach’s consoling “You’re OK,” to Phillips was met with a calm “I know, I’m good,” from the unflappable guard.
“That,” Mullen said, “gives you confidence as a coach to put them back in. . . . She truly is special in that way.”
Being able to move on quickly from mistakes will be necessary for the Great Danes against Louisville, a powerhouse program that’s earned a No. 1 seed in three of the last four tournaments. Phillips said the Great Danes know “that a lot of pressure is coming,” as they prepare for the Louisville defense.
“All their players are really good [and] athletic, so they can all pressure the ball,” Phillips said.
This season, Phillips has averaged 4.1 points, 1.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists and nearly one steal in 21.2 minutes per game. Those are modest numbers, but — just like in high school — Phillips has contributed winning plays for a winning team.
“My teammates and my coaches have really helped me throughout the season. It’s definitely been a challenge,” Phillips said. “It’s a lot different, but their confidence in me, that’s definitely helped me.”
Phillips counts herself as fortunate, too, that she’ll play in an NCAA tournament as a freshman at UAlbany.
“Just to be able to play with this team and this coaching staff, I’m so excited — and just to have three more years, it’s amazing,” Phillips said. “I can’t wait, and [playing] Friday is going to be an awesome experience — and I can’t believe I’m going to be there as a freshman, so I’m super-excited.”
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