What the Missouri Phenom Pheesa AAU basketball team accomplished last week was no small feat. Actually, it was a tremendous accomplishment.
The team, which features four players from Eastern Jackson County, won the Prague 17-and-under division in the Nike Tournament of Champions that hosted 784 teams from every state and Canadian province.
Helping the Phenom Pheesa accomplish this feat included Fort Osage's Kiyley Flowers, William Chrisman's Jacque David, Blue Springs South's Lauren Gillig and Blue Springs' Taitlynn Afualo.
According to the Tournament of Champions website, the event is considered the most prestigious girls basketball event in the world. It was a big stage with 658 college coaches in attendance. Even Golden State Warriors superstar Kevin Durant made an appearance to check out the action.
Pheesa – named after former University of Connecticut All-American Napheesa Collier – had an impressive performance in a 57-54 win against the Maine Firecrackers-Briggs in the tournament championship after going 5-0 in pool play. What makes its feat even more impressive is that the squad consists of all 15-year-olds. So why did Pheesa coach Rodney Gilyard decide to have his team play against 17-year-olds?
"We're definitely skilled enough to play against any high school," Gilyard said. "We wanted to play the most physical and fast competition. I wanted to get these guys accustomed to seeing that."
Flowers noted that the team was motivated for the Nike Tournament of Champions after losing in the their previous tournament in Kentucky. She said the team knew it had to play at a much faster pace in Chicago and it did just that.
"We lost to a team that brought us a challenge in Kentucky," said Flowers, who will be a sophomore at Fort Osage in the fall. "That helped us elevate our level of play and compete with the 17-year-old teams. We've been playing with a lot of energy. Our biggest accomplishment was adapting to that level of play."
Added Afualo: "It feels like we got a little bit stronger and a little bit faster. Before, they were faster and almost put us out of shape."
The competition Pheesa played was more fast and physical than what David was accustomed to but she said the players eventually got used to that as the tournament went on.
"They were definitely physical and taller than me," David said of opposing post players in the tournament. "I just knew I had to go to work."
The team has enjoyed some success over the summer, notching a 25-2 record against all 17U teams. Gilyard and the players attributed some of their success to the improved team chemistry.
"We've been working on communicating more and trusting each other and defending the help side," said David, who will be a sophomore at Chrisman this fall.
Flowers has been at the forefront of that effort as she's been the team's starting point guard. Known for her pinpoint passing and 3-point shooting, she has been working on driving to the basket more and has found success.
"Kiyley is our floor general and has the ball in her hands a lot," Gilyard said. "She's fast and she's strong. She plays better against the better teams we played. She brings mental toughness and is a aggressive defender."
David has contributed as an all-around forward, something she showed at Chrisman, being able to score in the post and shoot from the perimeter.
"Jacque has a lot of versatility," Gilyard said. "She can obviously post up, but she can handle the ball, too. She's a touch cover because of her physicality. She can go inside and bang and step outside and hit a three. She's fast and strong and brings a lot to what we do."
Gillig has been a 3-point specialist for Pheesa. She said she takes advantage of other teams playing zone defenses as she's become adept at knocking down shots from the perimeter.
"My role on this team is a lot different than with South," Gillig said. "I mainly shoot with this team. I have to create my own shots, too."
Added Gilyard: "Lauren is probably the best shooter in the state. There was a game that she made seven threes for us in Chicago."
Afualo, who switches between forward and guard, has been one of the best rebounders for the team and has found points by slashing to the basket.
"Tait, she's that girl that slashes and does a little bit of everything," Gilyard said. "She is a good rebounder and passer. Sometimes she's too unselfish. She will pass up shots to find someone else. Her toughness is also incredible. We need that."
Coming off their biggest win of the year, Hilyard and his players now turn their attention to the Basketball on the Bayou tournament, which will be played July 22-25 in New Orleans.
"I think we're ready,' Gilyard said. "We'll see some good competition. Our pool is loaded. As long as we stay true to who we are, we will be fine."
The team also includes Barstow's Brylee and Jaelyn Glenn, St. Pius X's Natalie Rippy, Bishop Miege's Faith Hawthorne, Staley's Kaylyn Taylor and Maryville's Serena Sundell.