Thursday, November 22, 2012

Girls Basketball Outlook: Talent continues to shine in Memphis-area

from Commercial Appeal

Long overshadowed by its counterparts in East and Middle Tennessee, girls basketball in Memphis is slowly but steadily losing its little sister status.

Central made a major statement two years ago in winning the Class AAA state championship and the Lady Warriors and Overton have been constants in Murfreesboro in recent seasons. Last season, the Lady Wolverines lost in the state semifinals for the fourth year in a row.

Add in the steady stream of colleges coming to Memphis — and DeSoto County — in search of talent and it's easy to see that the girls game is on the rise. It promises to be a very good season, one brimming with possibilities, interesting story lines and promising players.


Of course, most conversations about girls basketball start with the Lady Warriors and this year will be no different. After losing in the quarterfinals of the AAA state tournament last season, coach Niki Bray and company will be looking to make a return, despite losing two players now playing major college basketball in Danielle Ballard (LSU) and Aaliyah Whiteside (Georgia Tech).

"We've got some kids who are ready to step up," said Bray. "They've been practicing for two years and now they're ready to play. There's going to be some nervousness ... but this is a good team.
"They're unselfish and they want to play together. I like the mix we have and I'm looking forward to the season."

Bray is thankful to have Nina Davis back for one more season. The 6-1 senior, who signed with defending national champion Baylor last week, is one of the most decorated players to come through the area, twice winning The Commercial Appeal's Best of the Preps player of the year award while also being named a Miss Basketball finalist and winning MVP of the state tournament.

Davis averaged 19.4 points and 9.0 rebounds last season, numbers that could increase this year.
"I want her to be more selfish this year, but in a good way," said Bray.


Wolverines coach Lynn Smith breaks into a wide smile and shakes his head when asked what his team looks like this year.

"We're young. Real young," he said. "We are going to have some freshmen play some major minutes."
If those newcomers can develop quickly, Overton has a chance to be every bit as good as it has recently. The Wolverines finished 30-3 last year, losing in the AAA semifinals for the fourth straight time. Star guard Cornelia Fondren (Syracuse) and post presence Cortrice Golden (Tennesse-Martin) are gone but Smith will be expecting big things out of 6-2 senior Kelsey Briggs, who will play at Georgetown next year.

"We're hoping to improve and be able to play at a little higher level after the first of the year," said Smith. "We've got to develop chemistry and we have to get that toughness. Our returnees know what it takes."


In a word, very.

Coach David Baldwin welcomes back all five starters from last year's team that finished 29-3 and lost to Hattiesburg in the semifinals of the Mississippi 6A state tournament. Three of those starters — Jasmine Joyner (UT-Chattanooga), Aliyah Miller (Providence) and Joanna Smith (Buffalo) have already signed D-1 scholarships.

"That's what they (the players) say, we have unfinished business," said Baldwin. "But we just feel like we want to take it a step further. We need to stay together and stay humble and hungry."

Joyner, Miller and Smith all will be starting for the fourth year and Southaven's other two starters, Queen Hayes and Olivia Cunningham are juniors who will be starting for the third straight year. As valuable as that is, Baldwin says the experience of last year's semifinal run was even more important.

"I think that getting to experience the state tournament is even more important than their natural ability," he said. "They won't get rattled. They know it's a big jump to trying to get to where they want to be."


Manassas has had some great recent success in Class AA, reaching the state tournament in each of the last two seasons. Tommy Warren — the Best of the Preps coach of the year last season — lost several key players from last year's squad that went 31-4 but welcomes back one of the area's best all-around players in 6-0 senior Tiffany Jones and 5-9 senior Phikala Anthony.

Briarcrest Christian lost in the Division 2-AA semifinals last year after falling in the title game in 2011 and will also be poised for another good March run despite losing four starters.

A lot will be riding on the shoulders of talented junior Jasmine Cincore, who played at Central as a freshman, who figures to blend in nicely with returnees like sophomore Elise Holden and senior Erin Dunseath.


The best player you probably don't know too much about is Torri Lewis. A 5-10 sophomore who plays for the Memphis Home Education Association, Lewis is the real deal, an athletic guard who can really shoot it, as well as create off the dribble.

There are plenty of good guards in AAA with Germantown's Briana Mitchell (Southeast Missouri State) and East's Janeka Williams (Texas-Arlington) being two who are worth watching. At Ridgeway, 6-0 post-player Odegua Oigbokie, (Old Dominion) is a double-double every night.

The area's top scorer from last season, Kaylan Pugh of St. Mary's, returns after averaging just over 25 points per game as a freshman, as does Oakhaven's Derrica Wiggins, who topped the 30-point mark six times. last year.

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