Braves level up: Taconic girls basketball delivers 1st state title in program history
PITTSFIELD — By the time kids begin elementary school they're already setting goals. Some dream of becoming a firefighter or even president of the United States. Others are just trying to figure out how to get their hands on a second pudding packet at lunch.
Ciany Conyers knew she wanted to attend Taconic High School and become a Brave.
"My dad went to Taconic, so I grew up hearing all the stories about their glory days [on the court] when they used to win stuff," Conyers explained. "[Growing up, my dad and I] would come to all the games, boys and girls. I just noticed how fun it was, especially in that old gym.
"There were always so many people and I knew that is where I wanted to go for high school."
Around the same time, she met Ahliya Phillips, who quickly become her friend, both on and off the court.
"We've been friends since kindergarten," Phillips said after a practice during the final week of the season. "We started playing basketball together in the fourth grade and we haven't stopped since."
Fast forward to high school and as sophomores, Conyers and Phillips not only became stand-out athletes at Taconic, but helped the basketball team secure its first state championship in program history.
"We started playing basketball at The Boys and Girls Club of the Berkshires," Conyers said. "Throughout middle school, we told each other we would go to Taconic and win Western Mass. In eighth grade, we decided that we were going to make a difference there."
The Braves developed the perfect storm when Phillips, Conyers, and Faith Cross joined the team as freshmen, and a handful of students transferred from Pittsfield High School, including junior Taea Bramer.
Bramer had won a Division II Western Massachusetts title a couple years prior with PHS and provided the perfect balance to the freshmen, who were ready to raise the bar of basketball at Taconic.
"You need those older players who have a lot of experience and have been in those big moments," Conyers said. "They can pull everyone together because we know that they've been there and know what they're talking about."
With coach Matt Mickle juggling to make all the pieces fit, the Braves finished the 2018-19 regular season with a record of 16-4 and made it to the Western Mass. D-II championship, but fell to Northampton by four points.
" I think the first time [in the tournament there is] a lot more nerves and we were so young," Conyers said.
After starting two freshmen and a junior, along with a freshman sixth-man, the Braves knew what it would take to take that next step.
"It gave us more motivation," Cross said. "We started to go in and work so much harder."
It didn't take coach Mickle, in his ninth-year with the Braves, long to realize that this season could be special.
"I really think it was a few weeks in when the chemistry was great and everyone got a long," Mickle said. "If we could share the ball on the court, which we preached all year, find the right player and make the right basketball play, we would be good."
On Dec. 16, in their second game of the season, the Braves did something they hadn't done in roughly nine years, defeat Hoosac Valley.
"Honestly, when we beat them we felt like we could win Western Mass.," Conyers said.
Taconic knocked off the defending D-III state champions, 42-36.
"Beating them for the first time, we really saw that we were going to do big things this season," Phillips said.
The win was the second of 13-straight for the Braves to begin the season. Taconic fell to Wahconah on Feb. 8, but finished the regular season with a record 18-2 and achieved a handful of different milestones, including a Berkshire North Title.
"We had never beaten Hoosac [in my time as coach] and we did that three times this year," coach Mickle said. "We won the north and beat our city rival two times, a lot of this hasn't happened here in a long time."
These were nice accomplishments, but the Braves had bigger goals they've spent years working toward. It all started with the third seed in the Western Mass. tournament and a 20-point victory over Quabbin in the quarterfinals.
Part of being a senior captain is not only possessing another level, but knowing when it is necessary to be the best player on the court. The Braves had two of the top-five scorers in Berkshire County with Conyers (13.6 points per game) and Phillips (13), but Bramer was the difference throughout the postseason.
"She's the leader," Mickle said of Bramer following the win over Quabbin. "She's the kid that everybody looks up to."
On a night where offense was at a premium, Bramer scored a game-high 16 points, her second-highest total of the season, after scoring 18 in a win over rival Pittsfield.
The game against PHS wasn't just a rivalry win. It came in front of a loaded crowd at The Boys and Girls Club.
If it wasn't obvious then, it sure is now — Bramer wasn't going to let Taconic down on the big stage.
The senior scored seven points in the first quarter against Amherst in the semifinals. Throughout the season, the Braves rotated Cross and senior Tamia Patrick into the starting lineup depending on the matchup. Cross is a physical defender down low, while Patrick is a wing that can create her own shot and do a bit of everything.
Cross entered a two-point game late in the first, and ignited a 9-0 run, finishing the night with a double-double. Meanwhile, Patrick took a key charge to keep the Amherst offense out of rhythm. From there, Conyers powered a 16-4 run to help Taconic reach the Western Mass. finals.
A laser-focused Bramer averaged 17 points throughout the postseason.
She scored all of her team's four points in the first quarter of the Western Mass. championship game against East Longmeadow, but the Braves trailed 5-4 at the end of one.
While shuffling through a full-court press, Bramer took a spill in the second quarter. Not only did she get right up, she maintained her dribble throughout the fall to keep the possession for Taconic. The Braves led 15-11 at halftime and a 10-point fourth-quarter from Conyers helped seal Taconic's first Western Mass. title since 1993.
With a Western Mass. trophy in their back pocket, the Braves set their sights on a state title.
The girls were losing a battle with Medway, trailing 26-13 at halftime of the state semifinals. They may have been losing the game, but never lost confidence.
"There was no question we could battle back," Bramer said following the game. "It was just a matter of how hard we wanted it."
"We always pull it together," Patrick added. "It is just the chemistry we have with each other."
A frenzy of points from Bramer, Conyers and Phillips materialized into a 22-point third quarter and two point lead with eight minutes to play.
"They're flat-out gamers," coach Mickle said. "I love this group. Its just how they're built, they don't give up."
The "win or go home" mindset is taken to another level once you're a senior. Once you go home, it's for good. Patrick and Bramer each entered the game knowing what was at stake.
However, because of the coronavirus outbreak, the state semifinal was their final dance.
The two seniors didn't get the send off they deserved, but left a lasting impression of what they meant to the Taconic basketball program in the fourth quarter, the final eight minutes of their high school career.
Taconic was held scoreless in the frame's first three minutes and was suddenly trailing by five. Yet again, Bramer was there to right the ship.
She tied the game with a minute left to play on her third 3-pointer, which marked her third-straight game with 17 points.
After a stop on the defensive end, Patrick, who finished with 11 points, delivered the season's final blow. A baseline bucket in transition gave Taconic a two-point win in the game's final seconds. At the time, it secured Taconic's first birth in the MIAA D-II state championship game.
"Both [seniors] had huge moments in the tournament to help give them a strong send off," coach Micke said. "I am certainly going to miss both of them. They're different kids with different personalities, but they both brought so much to this team."
The MIAA announced the following day that there wouldn't be a state championship game, but Taconic earned the title of co-state champions.
"I wouldn't call it shocking because we knew there was a possibility of this," coach Mickle said. "I am so proud of our whole team, to finish 22-2 and we had some really big games and situations."
Being competitors through-and-through, this wasn't how the Braves wanted to end their season.
"It stinks since this is the first year Taconic made it this far," Conyers said. "It would've been an incredible experience and a great way to end the season. But with everything going on, it's understandable."
While the Braves didn't get to hit the court, it doesn't change the fact that the 2019-20 edition of the team has accomplished what no team has done since Taconic opened in 1969.
"It feels pretty good and we know Taconic had a hard time getting here," Phillips said. "This is a big accomplishment, but we have to go back and win that trophy ourselves."
Phillips, Conyers and Cross, who all showcased the growth needed to make a state championship, will all be back next year. The same is true for Kendra Buda, a tenacious and selfless guard, who will be the team's lone senior. Outside of the core four, the Braves have plenty of freshmen looking at an opportunity to make the jump as sophomores, including Ahna Balcom, Brenna McNeice and Madison Winn.
For Bramer and Patrick, the high school basketball journey has come to a close. Like any great story, though, it ended on the mountain top.
Jake Mendel can be reached at email@example.com, at @JMendel94 on Twitter and 413-496-6252.
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