COVINGTON, Ga. — They’d been here before.
Sanaa Tripp, a 12-year old middle school baller coming to the end of a basketball game — a close contest where she’d shot lights out during the entire time, and Montilia Tripp, Sanaa’s father and head boys basketball coach at Clements Middle School sitting on the edge of his seat, sweaty palms clasped together, watching intently to see whether or not his daughter would run to or away from the challenge.
Sanaa loves to ball. She loves competition. She lets her dad play her up with the boys during the rec ball season. She dropped about 30 on the boys in the season’s final game.
She masters grueling workouts from her dad that she calls “torture,” as they practice alone in the Clements gym, a smattering of championship banners that spell out the middle school’s rich hoops history — think former Newton and current Kentucky baller Ashton Hagans — serving as the backdrop.
And then, after she masters the sessions, she challenges her dad to keep up with her when she sees him starting to get winded.
“You’re gonna have to push through these workouts now because of what you’ve put me through,” Sanaa says to him.
But for all the gusto and bravado displayed in the game of an otherwise soft-spoken rising seventh grader, Sanaa had a dirty little basketball secret.
She was scared of crunch time. More specifically, the game-winning shot.
Remember that aforementioned rec game where she lit up the boys on the court? Despite being unconscious from the field during the whole contest, she clanked the game’s final shot attempt, and her team lost by a bucket.
“That one was the one that hurt the most,” she said.
“Then there was that one with last year’s AAU team,” her father chimed in.
“Oh yeah,” she said, with a slight shake of her head, almost as if she wasn’t trying to dispose of the memory even as she told the story.
“I was driving to the basket,” she said, “and I had the floater. I put it up and it rimmed out, but I felt good about that one, because at least it was a good shot.”
Sanaa’s dad said he noticed her penchant for ducking those “closer” moments, and he challenged her to get over it.
“I’ve seen it from both a father and a coach’s standpoint,” he said. “I’ve seen her run from that ball and hide sometimes, even when she was cooking, so to speak, and her shot was on. I used to tell her, ‘don’t ever hide. Don’t ever run. Always want the ball in a moment like that.”
Montilia doesn’t have to tell her that anymore.
More @SanaaTripp from #AAU6THGRADENATIONALS highlights vs Central FL Elite (FL Lightning). @EssenceXtremeGB @EssenceGirlsBB1 @EliteGirlsBBall @PureSweat @EGTBasketball (egt'er) pic.twitter.com/0E3AeMzIEO— Montilia Tripp (@trippcity) July 2, 2018
In Rockford, Illinois just several weeks ago during the AAU sixth grade National Tournament, Montilia knew something was different about this closer moment.
Sanaa was playing with the Nike Essence Extreme 2024 squad, and her opponent just buried a long jumper to go up by two points with just eight seconds remaining. Immediately, Mantilia’s eyes went to his daughter who was setting up in the corner to catch the inbounds pass.
“You could see her in the corner asking for the ball.” To demonstrate, Montilia slapped his hands together three quick times, generating a sound that echoed off the walls of Clements’ empty gym.
“She was clapping for it,” he said. “You could tell she wanted it.”
Sanaa got her wish, turned up court, pushing the ball with urgency. She looked up at the scoreboard once to see the eight seconds remaining in the overtime period. She had no need to look at it again.
“Dad always tells me to keep a clock running in my head,” she said.
That wasn’t all that was going through Sanaa’s brain during that closer moment.
“All I was thinking,” she said. Then paused. “My mindset was, I’ve put in a whole bunch of work for this, and it’s crunch time now, and I have to knock down this shot.”
Once she got past half court, all she had time for was a runner 3-pointer. She went up with it and released just as the buzzer sounded.
The wide smile she had while recounting that shot was a perfect companion to the initial tears she shed after it went in.
“I had a lot of emotion,” Sanaa said. “It felt good. It was so good to where I started crying.”
“Me too,” said her father.
“It felt good because I’ve missed a lot of important game winners in the past, and it meant a lot to make this very important one that sent my team to the AAU nationals Final Four. And it just did so much to boost my confidence,” she said. “I’d been in a bit of a down time, and that helped pick me up.”
Sanaa has been playing basketball since she was four years old. Her dad’s been coaching even longer.
“Ever since I’ve been alive,” she said with a laugh.
Montilia tutored Sanaa’s big sister Nidajzha Tennyson through rec ball as well. Tennyson, now a student at UGA, played for four years with coach Tiffani Johnson for the Newton Lady Rams.
Sanaa remembers it well. She remembers just about everything that has to do with Tennyson, her dad and basketball.
“She wants to do everything Big Sister does,” Montilia said. “Nidajzha played for Newton, and she loves Newton and has watched the Lady Rams play. If we don’t move before she gets to high school, she’ll be going to Newton.”
Sanaa has already made sure the coaches and players connected to the Lady Rams’ program know her face — even more so during this past season as Newton made its first state championship run in almost 50 years.
“I was there at the game,” Sanaa said. “I rode with them on the bus to (Georgia Tech) for the game. I like what they’ve done. I like it a lot. I’ve practiced with them a couple of times, and I see what they have to do to get there, and what they did to get to that place. It’s a lot of hard work and pursuit. I think it’s going to be me in that place one day. That’s all I kept thinking. I want to be here one day.”
She’ll move one step closer once her seventh grade year begins, as she’ll join the Clements Middle girls team coached by Abdul Hasan. It’ll be another chance for the young baller to prove her mettle against solid competition.
It will also be another opportunity for her father to practice some coaching restraint.
“He definitely does struggle,” Sanaa said of her father’s efforts to not coach his daughter from the stands. “Sometimes he just sits on the bench and doesn’t say anything, and I know it’s hard for him not to say anything. Sometimes he’ll have my other teammates say things, but he doesn’t speak to me at practice at all. And I thank him for it. That’s what you do when you are a father and a coach.”
His silence doesn’t equate to lack of concern, however. He picks his spots with Sanaa, and he shows support to her AAU squad regularly.
“I really coach Sanaa in here,” Montilia said, referring to the Clements gym. “I do all my coaching of her here. I try to let her AAU coach do what he needs to do, and I mainly just help with the other girls. I just try to lift all those girls up and treat them all the same. It’s hard because Sanaa is my daughter, but one thing about it, I love all those girls and they’ll get all my basketball knowledge whenever I cn give it.”
The only thing that, perhaps, has hurt Sanaa worse than those game-winners she missed is the time she got a 92 in one of her classes as a final grade, which is something that makes Montilia’s heart glad.
Ever since hitting the game winner in Illinois, Sanaa has narrowed her focus while simultaneously broadening her perspective about her ultimate goals as a student-athlete, but her father is making sure it’s known that the “student” part comes first.
“She’s not just a basketball player,” Montilia said. “She’s into robotics and engineering. She’s been an all-A student all her life. That 92 she got This past year was the lowest grade she’s ever gotten. Her goal is to never make anything less than a 95. It hurt her to her heart that she made a 92.”
Sanaa said her love for robotics came in the fourth grade when an elementary teacher introduced it into her class’s curriculum.
“It was something I’d never done or tried before,” she said. “I learned how to build robots that year, and I said that I liked this a lot and it could be my back-up or even my major, because I really love doing this.”
She loves it about as equally as she does the game of basketball. Sanaa says she has plans to play professionally, and she has aspirations to become engineer. It’s not an either-or proposition for her. More like a both-and deal.
“In basketball, I want to go as far as I can,” she said. “I actually do want to go to the WNBA. If not, I’ll go overseas. But I Really want to keep playing basketball for the rest of my life, along With being an engineer. I know I can do both.
So does her father. While he’s not necessarily living vicariously through his daughter, he does want to use his experiences to help her reach her goals.
“I can see it in her,” he said. “I see the potential. The NBA was my dream, so I know how hard it is and what you have to do to get there. I also know where I camp up short. So I’m going to do everything in my power to get her there. She’s on track. You have to have a little luck, but the work part is gonna be there, I can promise you that.”
Sanaa already knows that she wants to get better with getting to the basket more. She believes attacking can be her strength. After her AAU success, she believes confidence won’t be a weakness anymore. But Montilia says guarding against overconfidence will now be key.
“You see so many girls who used to be good in middle school but aren’t anymore,” he said. “And you wonder what happened. What it is is they stopped working. They had people in their ear saying they were going to the WNBA and all that in the sixth grade, and they thought they didn’t have to work anymore.
“That’s what I want to make sure she doesn’t do. You still have to work. You still have to go out and play the game. Even in the classroom, you still gotta study. You can’t let the success of making a big shot go to your head.”
Sanaa said she loathes losing to much to let that happen.
“When I was little, I used to hate to lose,” she said. “And by me hating to lose, it meant that I love the game more than anybody else. And my work shows that I do. By me being able to put the work in and show that I can be great and take it to the next level and keep getting better, I know I can make it to the pros one day. I won’t stop until I’m there.”