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Connally’s Tontyana Sanders averaged over 23 points per game for the Cadets last season.

Staff photo— Rod Aydelotte

Tontyana “TT” Sanders is the Moses of Connally High School.

Moses in the biblical sense, in that if the Lady Cadets’ basketball team is going to venture from the wilderness to the promised land, she’ll have to lead the way. But also Moses in the basketball sense. Moses as in Moses Malone, because she attacks the glass with a similar ferocity as that legendary late Hall of Famer.

She snatches caroms like she’s a hungry kid in a family of 12 brothers and sisters and the ball is the last butter roll.

“Last year she was just off the charts,” Connally coach Taylor Sims said. “I never coached an athlete or a basketball player with her athletic ability. She’s relentless. If there’s a ball out there, she’s going to get it. Not many people can outrun her on the court. I haven’t seen anyone outjump her yet.”

Sanders, a 5-foot-11 senior post, averaged 23.4 points and ranked among the national leaders in rebounds, pulling down 21.4 boards per game. Her eye-popping athleticism helped Connally win a school-record 34 games and should make the Lady Cadets a formidable foe in the 2016-17 season, as the UIL girls’ basketball season tips off on Friday.

Despite the 34 wins, it’s the last of Connally’s five losses that still resonates the most. In the Class 4A area playoffs, Diboll slipped past the Lady Cadets, 45-45, providing an abrupt wakeup call to Connally’s dream of reaching the regional tournament and playing district rival La Vega for a third time.

“We were thinking we’d get La Vega in the regional tournament. We were thinking third time,” Sims said. “It’s hard to beat somebody three times. I’m not saying we were looking ahead, but we hadn’t been there. ... I don’t think these girls had ever been there because they hadn’t been to the playoffs since ‘01 (before the 2015 season).”

Talk about an opportunity slipping through one’s fingers. Connally’s players still carry vivid memories from that February night against Diboll, of loose balls that quite literally eluded their grasp.

“It was in our hands,” said junior guard Cierra Stewart. “Oh gosh, I hate to dwell on it. That motivates us to focus more on the little things and the details in practice, instead of just going through the motions. Thinking, ‘Oh, it’s just basketball.’ No, it actually matters.”

Three senior starters from last year’s team have departed — point guard Timeya Adams, 3-point specialist Reagan Reed and post Ahlana Lofton. Into the void steps a trio of underclassmen, including freshman Miannah Little, who inherits Adams’ old role as the primary ballhandler and quarterback.

But what excites Sims the most is that he essentially has a roster of gym rats on his hands.

“You had girls who were athletes out there playing basketball,” Sims said. “We got as far as we did just off their athletic ability. Now I look out there and I’ve got 13 girls (on the varsity), and eight of them play AAU summer basketball. So they’re oriented with basketball year-round. It helps in that aspect.”

Of course, it’s debatable whether basketball is the best sport of Connally’s best player. Sanders certainly has Division I ability, and drew interest from basketball programs like Kansas, Arkansas and Texas-El Paso. But she’s also one of the top track performers in Texas, with two state championships in the 400-meter dash to her credit as well as the Central Texas all-time record. She committed to Baylor’s track and field program back in February, and will make it official when she signs her letter of intent next week.

Sanders said it wasn’t easy to choose between two sports she loves, but she feels at peace about her decision.

“I had many opportunities. It is kind of sad because it’s my last year playing. Hopefully I’ll talk to Kim Mulkey while I’m there,” Sanders said, laughing. “But I love track, and I’m going to miss basketball so much.”

Unfortunately for Connally’s basketball opponents, her hoops retirement will have to wait until after the upcoming season. The average Class 4A post couldn’t keep Sanders from collecting double-digit rebounds if she were equipped with a straightjacket.

“I just have to jump up real high,” said Sanders, who topped double figures in rebounding in all of Connally’s 39 games with a high of 30 boards against La Vega. “I know some girls are taller than me, but I have more balance due to track and long jump, so that kind of helps me get my balance up. If you want to get the extra points, you’ve got to rebound.”

Sims envisioning Sanders expanding her game even more. She connected on 15 shots from beyond the 3-point arc as a junior, and she’s been regularly working on her outside touch. Without giving up the entire game plan, Sims intends to call more designed plays to get Sanders shots.

“If you stop her, you stop her,” he said. “But she will get the ball more. … I told her this year, if you get the ball out on a rebound, go. You are a one-man fast break.”

With two-time Super Centex Player of the Year Calveion “Juicy” Landrum having moved on from La Vega to Baylor, the District 17-4A race could be more competitive than recent seasons. Connally has visions of a district title, using the motto “The Time is Now” on its T-shirts and posters.

But much like Sanders when she targets a high-arcing rebound, the Lady Cadets are gazing even higher.

“So that’s our first goal, district championship,” Sims said. “Our second goal is regional tournament and our third goal is, let’s get to (the state tournament in) San Antonio. But it also plays off of La Vega, we lost to La Vega by four points and three points, and they made it to San Antonio. So we know we were that close.”

CENTRAL TEXAS PLAYERS TO WATCH

PosPlayerClPtsRebSchool
PTontyana SandersSr23.421.4Connally
GCarly CampbellSr16.93.9Lorena
GBarbara BensonSr10.93.8Midway
GKeauna WhitfieldSr18.011.0Rosebud-Lott
GShania HudlinSr14.84.5Waco High
GAbbie SnyderJr13.11.5China Spring
GMary GravesSr19.05.0McGregor
FHope ThomasSr23.912.7Blum
FRiley BraySr15.010.1Bosqueville
FAdrianne RaulsSr20.010.0Mart
FTa’Naiya NorwoodJr14.36.5La Vega
FJenna MooreSo13.76.4Frost

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