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There are a lot of reasons the McLean girls basketball team is enjoying one of its best seasons in recent memory.

Steady backcourt play, sound team defense and valuable senior leadership all factor into the Highlanders' current nine-game winning streak. The biggest reason, though, might be the play of their 6-foot-1 center, Lisa Murphy, whose imposing presence in the paint and soft touch around the basket have posed matchup nightmares for opposing coaches around the area.

Murphy, a Carnegie-Mellon recruit, provides an array of skills in the post that sucks defenses' attention away from the Highlanders' dangerous weapons on the perimeter. Its intimidating offense combines with a sturdy defense giving up just 38 points per game this season to make McLean (10-3, 4-1 Liberty) believe it can make a run at an elusive Liberty District crown next month.

“We're really happy about our winning streak,” Murphy said after putting up 22 points in three quarters of action in a 55-38 win against Jefferson on Tuesday night. “I think we're a team that gets a lot of momentum from our wins, so to have all these wins in the middle of district play has given us a lot of confidence going into the rest of the season.”

McLean's midseason run has come after a rough 1-3 start to the season, which began with some crucial setbacks due to injuries. Senior Evelyn Robinson, the team's starting point guard last season, has likely been sidelined for the season with a leg injury, and junior guard Christy Warren is out for the year with a herniated disk. Senior post player Lexi Slotkoff is out with a broken foot, a loss that put more pressure on Murphy to give the Highlanders a reliable option underneath the basket this season.

So far, Murphy has answered the call, scoring in double digits in all but two games. A complete set of skills that has come to fruition with constant improvement over the past few seasons makes her one of the region's best talents at the center position. When she's not collecting buckets on the offensive end of the floor, she's using her surprising quickness to alter shots on the other end.

Murphy's consistency has helped the Highlanders shrug off those three consecutive losses, which came against teams with a current combined record of 32-7.

“She's developed her footwork around the basket the past couple of years where she can score with either hand,” McLean coach Mike O'Brien said. “The biggest thing that's helped her over the last couple years is that she's been able to absorb contact and finish, whereas before she was sort of getting pushed around a little bit. Now instead of just getting to the free throw line, she's getting to the free throw line as an and-1.”

McLean's recent run was highlighted by a dominant 59-32 win against George Mason High on Dec. 29, which handed the Highlanders the Pohanka Chantilly Basketball Classic trophy. Wins against Mills Godwin and Georgetown Visitation led them to that victory in the three-game holiday tournament, which marked O'Brien's first championship in such a competition since taking over at McLean nine years ago.

Rather than let a sense of satisfaction creep in, O'Brien and his players used that triumph to fuel them for more wins in the coming weeks.

“This year we're starting something new, where when we walk into the gym, we have the confidence that we can win the game, and we're carrying that confidence throughout how we play,” said senior guard Shellie Kaniut, an Emory recruit who scored 10 points against Jefferson Tuesday. “We definitely want to establish a high seed going into the [Liberty District] tournament, finish well in the district. We want to get to the district finals and make it a big year for McLean.”

With nine games remaining in district play, the Highlanders' 10 wins has them on pace for a breakout season. McLean hasn't won more than 12 games since the 2007-08 season, when it finished with a

14-11 record.

Winners of four of the last five district championships, Madison has long reigned supreme in the Liberty District.

But with a 6-4 record to their name and season-ending injuries to two of their best players, this might be the year to knock the Warhawks off their perch. McLean defeated the defending champions last Wednesday, 52-46, marking only its second win against Madison in the last 11 meetings between the two teams.

“After our three losses we talked about winning becoming a habit,” O'Brien said. “Once you get one it can become a snowball effect. Ever since then we've started snowballing and I just think the confidence has grown with the girls believing more and more how good they are, and they're showing it on the court right now.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com