Madison Scott approached the baseline, her long arms dangling at her sides. Behind her was Aliyah Matharu, her teammate on the Bishop McNamara girls’ basketball team and another key piece of a fearsome full-court press.
It was December 1, just a few days into the season, and McNamara was five seconds away from earning a victory over Hamilton Heights Academy, the Tennessee powerhouse ranked fourth in the country by USA Today. The Mustangs were up by three points and all they needed was a stop.
Scott was assigned to the in-bounder and Matharu shadowed a guard. Both of them took their spots and then stood completely still, waiting for the whistle and their chance to win. When it came, they burst into motion and harassed the Hawks, helping to force a bad shot and secure a statement victory.
Since that game, the Mustangs have jumped out to a 9-0 record that includes multiple wins over national contenders. They recently took over the No. 1 ranking in the area and they enter this weekend’s Title IX Invitational in Washington as the team to beat.
“This season is what we’ve been building toward the last couple of years,” Coach Frank Oliver said.
The last time McNamara won a Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship was 2008. The last decade has mostly featured St. John’s and Paul VI tussling with each other atop the conference standings. The Mustangs feel like this is the year they can change that.
“That’s our goal — to interrupt that,” senior forward Jakia Brown-Turner said.
The team has received plenty of preseason attention, both on a local and national level, because of the talent they have returned from last year. Scott, Matharu and Brown-Turner make up the team’s triumvirate of playmakers. They arrived at that role in three distinct ways, each representing a different but well-worn path by which a high school basketball team can find itself with a star: by development, by transfer and by luck.
Oliver calls Brown-Turner the cornerstone of what he has built at McNamara. He’s known her since she was in sixth grade and when she came to McNamara as a freshman in 2015, two years after Oliver took the job, he made her a varsity starter. Each season he monitored her growth, hoping that she could develop into the player and leader that McNamara needed to reach new heights.
“It kind of started when Jakia arrived on campus,” Oliver said. “We felt we had the opportunity to do something special by the time she was a junior or senior.”
Now, Brown-Turner is one of the most feared offensive players in the area. She is a constant threat to knock down a three-pointer from the corner in the Mustangs’ fast-break offense or create her own look in a half-court set. She is ranked by ESPN as the No. 17 player in the Class of 2019 and, before this season, she committed to N.C. State.
“Now I can just focus on winning a championship,” she said of ending the recruitment process. “Winning a championship is all I want.”
Matharu, Brown-Turner’s senior running mate and the team’s other leading scorer last season, doesn’t have an extended history with McNamara. She attended the now-closed Forestville High School for her freshman year and transferred to McNamara before her sophomore season.
When she arrived, the Mustangs had a talented senior playing point guard, Matharu’s natural position. So she focused on contributing however she could, playing any position asked of her with a trained intensity. Now, as one of the team’s leaders, her positional flexibility and tireless commitment has come to define both her role and her team.
“Playing in the WCAC, the one night that you feel like you can take a day off, that will be an L on your record,” Matharu said.
Scott is entering her third year with the team, and is ranked as the No. 20 player in the class of 2020. While she has matched Brown-Turner and Matharu’s passion for developing her game, Scott’s ascension to sought-after Division I prospect came in part from a timely growth spurt.
Scott said that when she toured McNamara as an eighth grader she was 5-foot-8. By the time she showed up to the team’s first workouts that summer, she was 5-11. Now, entering her junior season, she stands at 6-2.
“It’s just a blessing,” Oliver said. “She has not stopped growing since I met her.”
The sudden and drastic change means that Scott possesses a unique set of skills for a player her size. She grew up focused on developing ball skills and shooting like a guard, and now has the ability to blow past tall and slower opponents and stick with shifty guards.
“For me, it’s a mismatch every night,” she said. “It’s always going to be a big on me and, to me, I’m not a big.”
The combination of the three distinctive skill sets, in addition to the rest of McNamara’s balanced roster, has the Mustangs feeling ready for the nightly challenges of a WCAC schedule. It also has the rest of the WCAC very aware of them.
“They present a very unique challenge,” St. John’s Coach Jonathan Scribner said. “I see them as one of the most talented teams in this country and they’re right here in our conference.”
Last season, the Mustangs turned some heads by beating Paul VI in the regular season and then falling to the Panthers by just two points in the WCAC semifinals. All three of the Mustangs' core players said they want that to serve as the precursor to something bigger: a long-awaited ascension to the next level.
“We have the same team from last year,” Brown-Turner said. “We were real close. So now everyone’s eager to get after it.”