Megan McConnell credits brother T.J. McConnell for bringing taunts and toughness to her game
They were trying to get into her head. Megan McConnell knew it. She prepared for it. She has dealt with it her entire life. But Trinity High School's student section still sneaked its way under her skin.
"T.J's BETTER! T.J.'S BETTER! T.J'S BETTER!" the students chanted all game long during last season's playoffs, referring to McConnell's older brother, T.J. McConnell, the Philadelphia 76ers point guard who posted his first career triple-double on Monday.
"I let it get to me," Megan says.
But now? Now that she has emerged as a Division I prospect in her own right, averaging nearly 19 points a game for Chartiers Valley High School in Bridgeville, Pennsylvania? Words like that roll off the sophomore, like during a recent game when she took a charge on a girl who said she only earned the call because she's T.J.'s sister.
"I'm my own person. I'm my own player," Megan says. "I'm always going to be in his shadow, but that's what pushes me."
The 5-foot-6 point guard is the youngest in what many locals call "the royal hoops family of Pittsburgh."
Besides T.J., her other brother, Matty, plays for nearby Division I Robert Morris University. Her father, Tim McConnell, is a legendary preps coach in his 25th year at the helm of Chartiers Valley's boys' team. Her aunt, Suzie McConnell-Serio, is a former WNBA star and Olympian and now head coach of the University of Pittsburgh women's basketball team. Another aunt, Kathy McConnell-Miller, is Pittsburgh's associate head coach. Her uncle, Tom McConnell, is the head coach of Indiana University of Pennsylvania's women's basketball team.
Spend a day with the McConnells and you might start spouting about the flex offense or attacking on-ball screens. Their brown couch at home is actually a sectional that goes all the way around the living room, perfect for having a crowd over to dissect games.
Megan has been breathing hoops at her father's practices and her brothers' games since she was 2. She always had a ball in her hands, dribbling on the sidelines, her hands becoming addicted to the leather.
Tim knew his daughter could be next in line when she was a fifth-grader. Little Megan was too thin to hoist up 3-pointers, so she worked on crossing-over and stopping-and-popping at the foul line.
Suzie McConnell-Serio's grade-school coach, Dan Kail, who also coached Tim, happened to be in the gym when Megan was practicing.
He turned to Tim and said: "Wow. She shoots way better than Suzie ever shot."
Now, with an improved long-distance shot, Megan has emerged as a starter for Chartiers Valley. She's averaging nearly 19 points a game, plus 3.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists per night.
She may be one of the smaller players on the court, but she is one of the loudest, and is known for her leadership and putting her teammates in the right spots at the right time. Robert Morris has offered her a scholarship and she's receiving interest from other Division I schools, too.
"She's smart," says Dan Slain, her coach at Chartiers Valley. "A lot of kids just do things just because. She does things because she knows how, when and why to do them. That's what makes her different. Most kids can play basketball, but she can think the game."
Megan's IQ helps her out on defense; she has an understanding of the exact angles she needs to position herself to disrupt the ball.
"She continually frustrates the opponent with ball pressure, with her athleticism, with her long arms," says John Tate, who runs the AAU program that Megan plays for, Western PA Bruins. "That's what makes her really special."
Megan wasn't always tough, though.
T.J. is 10 years older. She was in elementary school when he was in high school (and when Matty was in middle school). The three of them would battle each other for hours, and the same thing would always happen by the day's end: "They wouldn't let her win," Tim says.
Once, a young Megan ran inside, crying. "Mom, they aren't letting me shoot. They're blocking me every single time."
Her mother, Shelly, smiled. "Buckle up, girlfriend," Shelly said. "You take it or you don't have to be outside there with them."
Megan chose to wipe her tears and return to the pavement. And she would do so, day after day. No one she'd face in the coming years would ever be as physical as her brothers.
"That's given her that toughness that she has, that drive, that not-giving-up attitude," Shelly says.
But Megan felt the pressure of coming from such a talented family. She almost felt like she wasn't allowed to make mistakes, that she'd be judged more harshly than her peers -- or, that when she succeeded, people would say it was only because of the advantages she had coming from such a well-connected family.
"It was hard, but I had to just keep getting better," says Megan, who often turned to her brothers for advice. T.J.'s wallpaper on his phone says: "Prove people wrong."
"He's always told me that there will be negative people in your life that don't think you can do things, that there were negative people in his life that told him he couldn't make it to the NBA," Megan says. "He says I can make it through anything and the haters are going to say stuff. They don't want you to succeed, but you just have to believe in yourself and you can make it happen."
Megan started to tune out other voices and find her own.
The former homebody, who always went to dinner with her parents and who rarely went out with friends, started spending more time around her peers. She started to gain confidence. She started talking about maybe attending college out of state.
Her new glow began to glimmer on the court, too, especially during the WPIAL 5A championships at the University of Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center last season. She was just a freshman and it was the biggest game of her entire life -- and "one of the craziest," she says.
She struggled early. Oakland Catholic High School was guarding her tight. She had only three points in the first half and couldn't get many shots off.
"Just play your game," she whispered to herself as she headed to the locker room.
She took the court again at the start of the third quarter. With her team trailing by eight, Megan found her rhythm and her voice, telling her teammates they could turn things around. She knocked down a couple of key 3s down the stretch and scored 16 points in her team's 52-36 win.
"I felt like I really showed who I am," she says.