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Karaoke, Uno and legendary team dinners bring Lancers closer

By Sam Hovan

​LongwoodLancers.com

Some rosters are made up of teammates. Some are made of friends. Some are family. In three seasons under head coach Rebecca Tillett, Longwood women’s basketball has become all three.

With an unflinching emphasis on culture, camaraderie and a collective passion for excellence, the Lancers finally saw years’ worth of culture-building come to fruition during last year’s breakout season in the Big South. Behind the program’s best finish in Big South play, a school Division I-record for Big South wins and highest-ever Big South winning percentage, the Lancers received an invitation to the Women’s Basketball Invitational and emerged as one of the most potent offenses in the Big South. 

But for all the success last year’s team achieved on the court, the roots for their breakthrough began years ago and without a single basketball in hand, and it’s quickly becoming a case study in how to build a team.

“This is my home away from home,” junior Kyla McMakin, a two-time All-Big South guard and the Big South Freshman of the Year in 2020, said. “I can hang out with everybody, we can argue like sisters and just be fine literally the next second, just like a real family.”

“This is definitely different,” Bri Johns, a transfer from Southeast Missouri State, said. “It’s not just the players who are close, it’s the coaching staff as well. This is like one big family.” 

The recipe of a tightly knit team combined with the talent fourth-year head coach Rebecca Tillett and her staff have brought to Farmville results in magic on the basketball court.

“At this point in my career, I’ve been doing it longer now, you can identify things that are part of the chemistry magic that you’re looking for,” Tillett said. “And so when you see it as a coach, you just kind of tuck it away and whisper to yourself, ‘That was it.’ And maybe sometimes you tell them, right? So they know to look for it again and create those situations again.

“I think our staff has worked really hard: our assistant coaches, Jessie Siler, our athletic trainer, and Courtney Taybron, our strength and performance coach. I also know that it’s not a snap of the fingers, and your team has the chemistry you want. You have to work on it constantly.”

Even after last season’s breakout, the work has continued into the offseason. This year’s group has added six new faces to a stout core of returners. McMakin, Akila Smith, the reigning Big South Defensive Player of the Year and an All-Big South forward, and point guard Tra’Dayja Smith, an All-Big South honorable mention point guard lead a returning crew that includes all five starters, a combined 92% of the team’s scoring and 89% of the Lancers’ total minutes. This past summer, at the start of the team’s preseason training for 2021-22, as much emphasis has been put on the Lancers’ cohesion on the court as it has off of it.

“I’m a big family person, so for me, it was really good when all my teammates were being intentional about meeting me and knowing where I’m from,” said incoming freshman point guard Kennedy Calhoun. “I really like that we’ve been able to make chemistry really quick.”

“We do a lot of stuff together, but our coaches help us a lot too because we’ve done a few different trips this summer,” Anne-Hamilton LeRoy, a rising junior who has averaged double digits in scoring in each of her first two seasons with the Lancers, said. “That has definitely helped a lot, and we’ve spent a lot of quality time together. We went to the lake for two or three days, and then we went to a WNBA game.”

Team dinners are legendary, to the point that the coaching staff almost needs to hire bouncers to make sure everyone leaves. Board games, karaoke, cards; the team bonds over everything, but they’re just as competitive at the table as they are on the court.

“We talk about it as a staff, what kind of women are we looking for to bring into our program?” Tillett said. “And if you have that competitive fire, you can be turned up at any time to compete at a high level because you are already competing in your daily life.”

As for which Lancer is the most competitive on game night, the consensus from the team was near unanimous.

“I’ll fight somebody over Uno,” McMakin said, laughing. “We would stay all night. That’s the kind of team we are.”

But despite the ample trash talk brought on by a surprise “Draw Four,” the team is still plenty capable of letting their guard down to have some fun together.

“My first team dinner, they did karaoke,” Calhoun said. “It was really different, but it was fun because I wasn’t expecting that vibrant energy so fast. But just the fact that they were completely into the karaoke, it was really fun.”

That chemistry is infectious, and it’s proven to be one of the program’s most effective means of breaking down barriers between newcomers and returners alike. 

“Our first team dinner was within the first couple days we were here, so I was kind of quiet because I didn’t know anyone except Brooke [Anya, a former AAU teammate],” said Johns. “And they would all come up to me like, ‘Here, do you want to sing, come on, sing!’ It was cool that they were already comfortable with me even though I wasn’t as comfortable with them yet.”

All that time together off the court has allowed the organic growth of what several coaches and players label a sisterhood. Tillett says that the chemistry they’ve built allows them to disagree, as any sisters do, and she and her staff have a saying in place to make sure those disagreements don’t hang around: Confront immediately, let nothing linger.

“If something happens on the floor, we confront it so it doesn’t linger throughout practice,” LeRoy said. “So if me and Kyla get into it, it’s over and done with. Then say Kyla makes a play, I’m gonna be the first one to her to celebrate her. That’s how we do things, and it’s just a fun environment.”

“We stole that from Duke men’s basketball,” Tillett said of her team’s philosophy on handling on-court disagreements. “They’ve probably been doing it for 25 years, and we stole it as coaches somewhere along the way. It’s powerful within our teaching setting for the players, for the coaches, for every relationship that’s within our program, if we confront immediately. Now immediately might not be 10 seconds because sometimes people need to collect their thoughts and then they need to confront. You just don’t want to let things linger when you’re trying to chase a dream together because those lingering feelings, if you allow them to happen, can impede the progress of the team and yourself individually.”

For this team? That moment of fiery passion and fire that could ignite issues down the road is simply something to laugh about together.

“Today, I think we had a competitive moment when we’re playing five-on-five, and one possession I smacked the ball out of Kyla’s hand, and then she hit a three on me,” Johns said and then laughed. “That just goes to show that we were being competitive to each other. Like, I didn’t want her to score, and she wanted to score. It was cool, but it wasn’t anything like, ‘Ugh, I don’t like Kyla,’ after practice.”

“Say Bri and I get into it, right afterwards we’re going to be laughing and talking about it like, ‘Remember how I yelled at you? Haha, it’s funny,’” McMakin said. “That’s just how good we are and how close we are.

“There’s no one on the team that’s like, ‘Oh, I’m going to be the star and no one else matters.’ It’s like, ‘I want to be the star teammate.’ That’s the mentality.”

Now that the summer work is complete, this Lancer family is ready to chase after the Big South title the only way they know how — joyfully together.