They have played on the same basketball team since they were 6 — before the first iPhone was released.
Tor’e Alford and Kennedy Brown played on a team called the Magic that first season, and now a decade later, magic is exactly what they are trying to create at Derby High.
Last season ended in “incredible heartbreak” after the Panthers’ 18-point comeback was extinguished in the final seconds of the Class 6A girls championship game. Still, coach Jodie Karsak and her powerful 1-2 punch running the point and post said they know the final five minutes of that game can serve as a catalyst heading into what has the potential to be a special season.
“Being down that much and not giving up, I thought that was awesome,” Brown said. “Obviously I was upset we lost. Everybody hates losing, but we showed we can play at that level, and we can compete for state championships.
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“I think I was more proud than anything.”
Alford and Brown, both juniors, have a lot to be proud about. Both were invited to try out for the 2016 USA Basketball U-17 team, among a crowd of 150 players. Both played a major role in the Panthers’ 21-5 season last year. And both seem headed for Division I basketball in college.
Alford has already committed to play at Missouri State after she wraps up her senior year. She will play with even more motivation this season after her dad, Amos, died April 20. He suffered a heart attack while playing a basketball game during his lunch break.
Karsak told the Derby Informer that Amos used to come into her classroom before Tor’e was born and one day told her he and his wife were expecting a daughter.
“Maybe she’ll be a hooper,” Karsak said she remembered Amos saying.
Brown, too, is being heavily recruited. She has a mountain of letters coming in from across the country.
Times are getting serious for the lifetime teammates, but they remember when everything was easier.
In sixth grade, Alford dribbled down the court to set up the offense. Brown was watching while her best friend tried to shimmy past her defender. Alford was only semi-successful. The defender knocked into her and bumped Alford’s weave bun off her head.
Even in the middle of the game, Brown couldn’t hold her silence.
Those kinds of moments and stories are what will make this season together something to witness, Brown said.
“Coming into our freshman year, I think we knew we could do something special at Derby; we just didn’t know how,” she said. “But over the years just seeing how we’ve progressed and last year coming that close to winning a championship, just kinda fueled the motivation for this year.”
As good a time they have off the court, Brown and Alford seem the same when they’re on it. After so many years of youth basketball, travel teams and now high school squads, plays come naturally.
“It’s definitely good to have somebody you know, what they’re moves are, how they maneuver everywhere,” Alford said.
Their skills complement each other. Brown, standing 6-foot-5, was an All-State-type of problem for opposing defenses last season, averaging 13 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks.
As if triple-teaming Brown was an option, which some teams still believe it is, Alford’s speed and shooting at point guard was a headache for defenses.
Together, forget about it. One knows where the other will be, and for Alford, reading a defense becomes simple because of their chemistry.
“Let’s say she sets a ball screen, I can always know that she’ll be open, and I can trust that she’ll catch it,” Alford said. “Most of the time, two people are gonna take her or two people are gonna stick with me, and she knows they’re coming, too.”
The Panthers came out flat too often last year, though, and that’s what eventually cost them in the state championship game, a 44-42 loss to Manhattan. Although Derby made it to its first title game, Karsak said she knows there is more in store.
“We’re definitely on a mission this year,” Karsak said. “We’re not gonna talk about it a lot, but we know it’s there. And it’s got us focused in practice. It’s got kids being more consistent and all those things we need to do to be better and different this year.
“We can’t be the same team because if we’re the same team as last year, we are gonna have the same results.”
Luckily for her, she doesn’t have to make Brown and Alford do all the scoring. The Panthers return all but one player from the 2016-17 group and are equipped with several wing players who can be shoot. Aliyah Myers, Madi Young and Sydney Nilles all have the potential to get a hot hand.
“That helps a lot, knowing you don’t have to do everything,” Brown said. “Being able to count on other people to knock down shots. That opens up a lot for me.”
Karsak said this is the most talented roster she has ever coached, and its dynamic offense was on full display in those final five minutes of that championship game. Down 18 in a low-scoring contest, forcing the ball to Brown in the post or making Alford drive to the hoop wouldn’t work – at least not well enough to win.
Although they lost, they completed that comeback. The Panthers tied the score with only a few ticks left, but uncharacteristic of the defense they deployed late, they gave up the winning basket on Manhattan’s last possession.
Karsak said starting strong has been one of the major hurdles in the offseason. She said last year there were times the players would call themselves a “second-half team,” but Karsak said that’s not OK. She doesn’t want a second-half team. She wants a 32-minute team, and with a couple of childhood friends running the show offensively, that might just be the case.
“We can go out there and just improvise,” Brown said. “I’ve had people ask me, ‘What play were you guys running?’ and I’m like, ‘We weren’t running a play.’ That’s just us playing. We just know each other that well.”
Hayden Barber, @HK_Barber
Girls 6 p.m., boys 7:30
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