Syla Swords #12 of Long Island Lutheran looks to pass...

Syla Swords #12 of Long Island Lutheran looks to pass during the second quarter of a non-league girls basketball game against Sidwell Friends (Washington, DC) at Long Island Lutheran High School on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024.  Credit: James Escher

One week ago, Syla Swords was the youngest player on the court with the Canadian women’s basketball national team in qualifying games for the 2024 Olympics. After helping Canada qualify for the Paris Olympics, Swords was back at Long Island Lutheran with another daunting challenge — playing the third straight top 10 nationally ranked opponent in high school girls basketball in four days.

The Crusaders looked like a team that had been tested in the last few days. But helped by Swords’ timely three-pointers in the second half, host Long Island Lutheran defeated Sidwell Friends (Washington, D.C.), 63-42, in a matchup of two of the top five teams in the country on Monday.

“These games have been marked on our calendars since preseason when we all got together,” Swords said. “We knew we’d have a big week ahead with three top 10 matchups over a stretch of four days, so even when I was with the national team, this was in the back of my head. I knew I had some big games immediately when I got back.”

The senior guard played her final Olympic qualifying tournament game on Feb. 11 in Sopron, Hungary. She was the only high school player selected to play for Canada with a trip to the Olympics on the line.

Swords needed to elevate her game playing and practicing with professionals, and those skills transferred back to Long Island. She had 27 points in a 73-55 win over Montverde Academy (Florida) on Friday before recording 18 points, 14 rebounds and four steals on Monday.

“I think it’s hard not to improve when you’re playing against WNBA superstars and Olympic team athletes for a period of two weeks,” Swords said. “So I definitely felt good coming into these high school games knowing that I’ve been playing hard against some of the older greats of the game for Canada and against other teams.”

“She’s making some pro moves,” said Kate Koval, who had 17 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and four blocks. “That’s what you do when you go and play with WNBA players and pro players that are 10, 15 years older than you. She definitely brings that knowledge back to us and has been teaching us.”

No. 4 Sidwell Friends (19-5) took an 11-6 lead before No. 2 LuHi (20-1) closed the first quarter with a 6-0 run on Monday. Lutheran led 26-22 at halftime.

Swords sank three three-pointers in the final 3:23 of the third quarter, including one to start a 14-4 run and another as time expired in the quarter, as LuHi took a 43-30 lead into the fourth quarter.

“I feel the whole energy shifted after that third,” Swords said. “We had a bunch of good stops but we just weren’t able to connect, but it was nice for me to see shots go in.”

Kayleigh Heckel added 12 points, seven assists and four rebounds and Lauryn Swann also had 12 points.

Olivia Jones finished with four points off the bench and coach Christina Raiti credited the sophomore guard from Brentwood for playing a key defensive role, saying, “Olivia Jones probably won us this game.”

She added, “We just looked a step behind in the first half in everything we were doing, but the nice thing is we found our groove. It took a little longer than it normally does, but we still found it and other kids stepped up.”

LuHi went 3-0 and won each game by at least 18 points in knocking off No. 4 Sidwell Friends, No. 9 Montverde Academy and No. 10 Moore Catholic (New Jersey) since Friday.

“This is what we wanted,” Raiti said. “We wanted to be tested . . . You have to rely on each other, you have to use each other and you have to hope kids step up in other ways, and that’s what we got.”

Raiti admitted she was nervous at first about allowing Swords to play for the national team during their season. Raiti called herself “rigged” in the past about not allowing student-athletes to play outside basketball during the varsity season. But the coach couldn’t allow herself to take that opportunity away from Swords.

“This was one of her dreams,” Raiti said. “We’re talking she blew out her birthday candles and this is what she wanted.”

Swords doesn’t know yet if she’ll be selected to play in the 2024 Olympics in Paris, but it’s one of her goals. She loved playing and training with older players and couldn’t help but laugh at some of the differences in their lives.

“It’s funny with the conversations at the dinner table,” Swords said. “They are talking about taxes or buying homes and I’m just trying to get through my calculus homework. It’s not intimidating, it’s enjoyable. I’m a little different, obviously, but they check in on me and make sure I’m doing fine. It’s a great opportunity and I’d never turn down the chance to play for the national team.”

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